A Healthy School Lunch Doesn't Have to be a Puzzle



The school year is well underway, and as a parent, it can be difficult to ensure your kids have nutrition-packed lunches that will please the pickiest of eaters. Home-made lunches can also be a first-line of defense in the fight against childhood obesity by helping kids embrace a healthy lifestyle.

Adolescents today eat, on average, 8 percent more than 30 years ago. One in three kids and teens in the U.S. is overweight or obese. Equally alarming is that overweight kids have a 70-80 percent chance of staying overweight their entire lives, according to the American Heart Association.

“The American Heart Association recently declared obesity as a disease. Calling obesity a disease puts it front and center,” said Eduardo Sanchez, M.D., Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the American Heart Association. “Parents are the key. An easy way for parents to think about what they can do is a set of numbers: 5,2,1, 0. Five is five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Two is the hour maximum looking at a screen, TV, computer and whatever you hold in your hand. One is for one hour, at least, of physical activity.  And zero is about zero calories when hydrating yourself.  Water is the best choice of all.”

But fret not, parents, we can help put the pieces of a healthy school lunch together for you. Nutritious meals don’t have to mean an overwhelming overhaul to the lunch box options or enlisting the aid of a gourmet chef.  Here are some convenient, budget-friendly, creative ideas to keep kids happy and healthy at lunchtime:

Make a Smarter Sandwich

While some kids prefer the same thing every day, others may prefer a slight switch to their sandwich.

  • Use different breads like 100% whole wheat tortilla wraps (choose wraps low in saturated and trans fats) or 100% whole wheat pita pockets.
  • Besides lettuce, try shredded carrots or avocado slices with a turkey or lean roast beef sandwich.
  • Buy store brand blocks of low fat, low sodium cheeses. You save money when you slice it yourself. Or use a cookie cutter to cut into fun shapes.
  • Instead of lunchmeat, try leftover grilled chicken, lean pork or an egg white salad sandwich.
  • Always pack sandwiches with a mini cooler pack to keep them fresh and safe.

Love those Leftovers

Pressed for time? Think about using the leftovers from a family favorite dinner for a next day lunch. Invest in a thermos to keep foods hot or cold until the lunch bell rings. Some ideas:

  • Chili made with lean or extra lean ground meat or turkey and vegetables kids love
  • Whole wheat spaghetti with low sodium tomato sauce
  • Low sodium baked beans, bean casserole or beans & rice

Add a snappy snack

Adding a crunchy snack to a kid’s meal may cut the craving for chips and similar processed foods[MT1]   which can be higher in sugar and sodium. Try these as a healthy alternative:

  • Sliced apples
  • Sliced pears
  • Baby carrots
  • Celery sticks
  • Sliced bell peppers (green, red or yellow)

Let Them Dunk

Sometimes it’s OK to let your kids play with their food, especially when they are getting extra nutrition. Try packing one of these fun dunks with dippers:

  • Apple and pear slices to dip into low fat or non-fat plain yogurt mixed with peanut butter.
  • Carrot, celery and sweet pepper strips to dip into hummus, fresh salsa or homemade bean dip.
  • Whole grain crackers (choose crackers low in sodium, saturated and trans fats) or slices of grilled low sodium tofu (a soybean product)  to dunk into low sodium vegetable or tomato soup.
  • Unsalted sunflower seeds, crushed whole wheat cereal and sliced banana to mix into low fat vanilla yogurt (no added sugars) to eat with a spoon like a sundae.

Get Them Involved

While letting kids in the kitchen might mean a bigger mess, if they help pack their lunch, they’re more likely to eat that lunch! On nights you have a bit more time, like a Sunday night, have them choose which piece of fruit or what type of bread they want and let them assemble their lunch. Make this a weekly routine – it’s another great way to spend family time together.

For more Ideas

To learn more about American Heart Association dietary recommendations for children and families visit: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Dietary-Recommendations-for-Healthy-Children_UCM_303886_Article.jsp

For more tools and resources to help keep your kid physically active and eating right visit: www.heart.org/healthierkids


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