By Rachel Scherr and Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann
The scent of shiny new notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils fills the air; it is that magical time of year again–BACK TO SCHOOL! With summer winding down and the constant aroma of barbecue fading into a distant memory, it’s time to start planning. No, not only carpools and soccer schedules, but healthy, homemade lunches.
Studies show that approximately 25% of all elementary school students are overweight and nearly 75% of those children will grow up to be obese adults. What are you waiting for? Take action now for your child’s health. Although school lunches have vastly improved over the past few years, a properly made sack lunch by mom or dad is far more nutritious. Your child might complain initially (or even trade it away), but if exposed to nutritious lunches now, the more likely they are to make healthier choices later on. And as they grow up you have less control over what they choose to eat.
Using these sample lunch components as a guide, it can be easy and simple for you to make a healthy and fun school lunch.
Let’s face it, a sandwich is a lunch box staple, but how it is prepared can make a big difference in calories, fat and nutrition.
- Lean turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread (make sure whole wheat is the first ingredient listed on package). Use lettuce and tomato. For a picky child start slowly by sneaking in one veggie each month. Kids are more willing to try a food after repeated exposure. Use light mayo (1/3 calories and fat of regular), or mustard (no fat, few calories) or some kids even like ketchup (also no fat and few calories). Cheese is okay (has calcium), but use only one slice.
- Try a sandwich “roll-up.” Using a small, whole wheat tortilla, wrap up light cream cheese spread, lean lunch meat, lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Cut in half and spear with a toothpick to keep shape.
- Your kids like “Lunchables”? Unfortunately those are high in preservatives, sodium and price. Luckily it’s easy to make your own healthier version. Send your child equipped with healthy whole wheat crackers (one serving size as listed on box), some lean lunch meat and cheese (no more than one or two slices) cut to cracker size. Let your child mix and match to create his own stackable delights!
Fruits and Veggies
I know, you’re thinking, “my child will never eat that!” But if it’s in the bag and there aren’t any chips, cookies or other unhealthy options to grab instead they will eventually take a liking to the fruit or veggie option. This works at home too!
- Kids usually like grapes, which, in addition to being healthy, are easy to pack. Sliced apples are great too. To keep from browning, splash with lemon juice and leave the skins (most of the nutrients are found in the skin). Pre peeled orange slices are also very refreshing on a hot day.
- For a more playful approach to fruits and veggies that kids can show off to their friends, try making “ants on a log”. Cut celery into a few 3-4 inch stalks. Cover with about 1 teaspoon of peanut butter. Place raisins along the top for the “ant” effect.
- Send junior to school with carrot sticks and 1 tablespoon of light ranch dressing in a container.
- For really creative lunch packers, try “Witchy Wands.” Skewer a pineapple chunk, apple chunk, grape, and cheese cube all approximately one inch in size. Transfer skewers onto thin pretzel sticks.
A Sweet Treat (A Healthy Approach to Dessert)
We don’t advocate daily sweets, but instead of depriving your child of something that she really wants, teach her that a small treat is fine as long as she is active and otherwise eating healthy.
- Try a single serving of sugar free jell-o or pudding for an easy and healthy dessert.
- Also one bite size candy bar is the perfect portion.
- About one ounce of M & M’s is okay (about the size that fits into the palm of your child’s slightly cupped hand).
- A half cup of miniature marshmallows are another fun to eat dessert (and low fat), plus they come in pretty pastel colors!
Since most schools now offer a snack recess or nutrition break in the morning, it is important to pack your child something to eat at that time so they don’t buy that muffin, bagel or donut sold at school. Since breakfast was only a few hours before, it should not be another full meal. A snack should be low in fat and only 100 calories.
- A cup of air-popped popcorn (or even 94% fat free microwavable popcorn) is a very healthy, filling snack.
- One or two plain graham crackers are a sweet morning surprise.
- A piece of fruit is always a great snack time choice.
Rachel Scherr is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Group in Nutritional Biology at UC Davis. Her research focuses on nutrition education in preschool-aged children.