Before it’s in the bag and out the door, it's both helpful and healthy to give some thought to the elements of your child’s lunch. Living well is not just for adults, but for children too. Part of making healthy choices is being aware of your options and being aware of why nutrition is important.
September has been designated National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Yet with diabetes and cardiac issues on the rise, it’s wise to think about healthy food choices all year long. Lunch preparation provides an opportunity to adopt nutritious habits.
Don't Forget About Lunch
While the evidence shows that eating a nutritious breakfast is critical, lunch is vitally important as well. Is that daily lunch a pleasing mix for a midday meal providing ample servings of healthy foods the average child might be missing?
To cover the basics, ensure you have a little of each of several items in the bag. That includes:
- A rainbow of color to ensure portions of anti-oxidants, nutrients and vitamins.
- Cut fruits and veggies in bite-sized pieces, opting for fresh fruit and veggies whenever possible (keep an eye on packaging, to protect food from bruising).
- Use whole-grain bread, mini-bagels, pita pockets or tortillas for sandwich alternatives.
- For protein - think of yogurt, which can be used for dipping fruit, or mixed with fresh fruit for a tastier portion.
- Peanut or almond butter packs a punch of protein. If allergies to nuts pose challenges, try tuna fish, beans, cheese or tofu.
- There are all kinds of thermoses that keep milk well-chilled. It too is protein rich.
- Encourage your child to drink as much water as possible. For Florida kids, freeze a water bottle and place it in the lunch sack- or box. It can also help keep other food contents chilled.
Kids like visual variety. You can make cups of:
- Chicken cubes paired with grapes, almonds slices, and Craisins.
- Whole grain rice paired with raisins, nuts, and diced celery.
- Cooked couscous (or steamed brown rice, orzo, or whole wheat corkscrew pasta). Set aside. Chop zucchini, cucumbers, green, red or yellow red peppers, baby carrots, and celery, and toss. Marinate the vegetables in a light salad dressing, or olive oil with fresh herbs and lemon juice. Chill in the fridge for a few hours. Drain the veggies well after marinating, and then mix into grains or pasta. Place in a colorful, reusable container. It’s a portable meal that is filling, tasty and rich in nutrients.
Bread & Art
Using rice cakes instead of bread adds crunch to a sandwich. Select cookie cutters to help add shape to the sandwich. Those shapes can help make bread or cheese slices appeal to your child’s imagination and appetite. One week, you might cut bread in the shape of a baseball or tennis racket. The next week, you might try flowers, stars, letters or holiday themes.
Yes to Meat, No to Sweets
It’s important to think about healthy choices. Experts say it is okay to include lean meats on sandwiches, but be sure to cut down on sweets, and increase the amount of vegetables and fruits.
The Nemours Foundation website includes a section on healthy eating with recipes. It also discourages fast food, which is high in calories and sodium.
Other ideas and tips for a healthy lunch sack:
- Try mixing dry cereal with dried fruit and nuts, and vary the mixtures. (look for cereals with low sodium and fat contents).
- Make a skewer of tropical fruits with chunks of pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, plum, mango and peaches.
- Create veggie towers with grape tomatoes, zucchini circles, pea pods, celery and chunks of red peppers on a bamboo skewer. Include a small container of homemade dressing with chopped herbs such as basil, parsley, oregano and thyme. Get your kids involved- they can even grow a pot of the herbs and can start writing their own recipes.
- Sometimes, a bit of repetition appeals to kids. Have them designate different weekdays for various meals and treats.
- Fruit treats: Hollow out a bit of the center of a strawberry and place a nut inside. Take a raspberry and place a yogurt-covered raisin inside.
- Include slices of apples and shoot for variety. Include a fact sheet about the history and harvesting of apples.
- Cut pieces of celery and spread with peanut butter. Top with raisins.
- Halve a banana lengthwise and spread with peanut butter. Top with Craisins.
Lunch & Learn
The best snack choices for children – and adults, should include color, texture and flavor. Make food prep a family affair with a lunch and learn twist. Involve your kids in making homemade trail mixes, healthy granola bars, and devising “green” packaging for lunch items. Then tuck in a secret and colorful note.
The trick is to keep lunch balanced, colorful, and fun. If you include cheese, cycle in a new type, and include a short note about how it is processed, and where it comes from. Which country makes the most cheese? Which state? Have your child learn the capitals of those countries and states too.
Lunch prep offers an opportunity to interact with your child, while learning new things together. Try new dips from other countries for a geography lesson. Try different colors and textures and rate them. That way, you can simultaneously encourage healthy habits and interactive learning. Opt for a discussion about eating local and different methods for growing food - such as hydroponics. To encourage writing skills, designate your child a food critic and have them rate new recipes. Along the way, your child will learn flexibility and responsibility. Including your child always equates to more one-on-one time, and an open mind toward food.
We’d like to hear your own recipes for success when preparing healthy meals.
Resources to keep you thinking: