Familiar yellow school buses are starting to appear on the roads once again. Along with backpacks and pencils, you also want to send your kids to school with a healthy lunch. Good nutrition is the foundation for providing kids with energy to help them perform at their best through all the lessons, tests, and practices ahead.
Packing their lunch is a simple way to help your kids eat well. You don't have to spend forever in the kitchen or break the bank. All you need is some good advice on building a balanced meal and preparation tips so you have everything on hand.
What Makes a Great Plate?
For starters, not every packed lunch needs to earn an A+ in nutrition. Being nourished is not "perfect eating." When I talk about the healthy foods, that doesn't mean there is no room for anything else. Nevertheless, it will probably help to know what is recommended to help your children meet their needs for proper growth and development.
The ChooseMyPlate.gov website is a great place to learn about the recommendations for building a healthy plate for the entire family. About half the plate is made up of vegetables and fruit. The other half is comprised of similar amounts of lean-protein foods and whole grains. Dairy foods, such as cheese, milk, and yogurt are also part of the recommendation as they are high in calcium and other nutrients.
Calcium is important because it is the major dietary deficiency among kids today—86 percent of girls and 64 percent of boys are calcium deficient. But did you know that tofu and many of the green vegetables provide a source of calcium as well? If you haven't tried one of those "green smoothies" on your kids yet, give it a go. Blend a banana, a few berries, about 1 cup of spinach or kale, and 1 cup of either skim or soy milk together with some ice for a quick, high-calcium, healthy breakfast smoothie to help them start the day off right.
Stock the Pantry With 'Great Plate' Foods
Fresh fruits and veggies are a must to have on hand for quick and easy packing; think baby carrots, celery (great with peanut butter), cucumber, broccoli florets, red peppers, melons, berries, apples, oranges, and grapes. Kids love dipping their food, so it would be a great idea to pair fruits and veggies with dips like hummus, peanut butter, or yogurt. When choosing the fruits and vegetables, try to select a rainbow of colors to provide your kids with a variety of key vitamins and minerals.
Stock your fridge with plain yogurt (add some cinnamon for a great dip), low-fat cheese sticks, and sliced cheese like cheddar for great protein- and calcium-rich snack options. I like keeping basic canned or packaged foods in the pantry for easy prep. Examples can include: canned chunk light tuna; low-sodium soups (like black bean or minestrone); whole-grain crackers, wraps or bread; brown rice (check for frozen or shelf-stable varieties that cook in minutes); raisins; fruit cups with light syrup or no added sugar (be sure to drain before serving), nut butters, and jam made of 100 percent fruit.
Think about something sweet to include in their lunch box as well. Of course, there is always fruit, but a quick, homemade trail mix can easily be a nutritious alternative to cookies and candy bars. Plus, your kids can help you make it. Just combine, in equal amounts, any seed, any nut, any dried fruit, and semi-sweet morsels. You could add a low-sugar cereal if you like. Have your kids help mix it up and portion two to three handfuls in a reusable container. This is a great snack to have around after school as well.
Quick and Healthy Lunch Solutions
In need of ideas? Here are some recipes* the kids should love:
• Tuna wrap: Wrap up brown rice, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and shredded carrots with tuna. This nutritious option offers vitamins A, C, and magnesium.
• Egg-salad sandwich: Make a great protein-packed lunch with homemade egg salad. Mix hard-boiled eggs with celery, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, scallions, and pepper, and serve in a pita or on whole-wheat bread.
• Chicken tostadas: You can get a pack of pre-made tostadas at the grocery store, or make them yourself. Use pulled chicken, turkey breast, or tofu and mix with diced tomatoes, black beans, avocado, salsa, reduced-fat sour cream, lettuce, and shredded cheese. This meal is rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
• Pizza roll ups: Spread tomato sauce on a tortilla, and add layers of baby spinach and shredded mozzarella cheese (microwave until cheese is just melted). Add baby carrots and cucumber slices in a separate container with some fruit, like watermelon, to make this meal well-rounded and full of calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
• Barbecue chicken sandwich: For a simple sandwich loaded with vitamin A and selenium, assemble shredded chicken with 1 tablespoon of barbecue sauce, shredded carrots, and romaine lettuce or spinach.
While the weather is still warm, cold meals will likely be more popular, so keeping the food cold is the goal! Buying an insulated lunch bag and reusable ice blocks has always worked for me. Freezing beverage works well, too. You may want to mix 4 ounces of juice with 4 ounces of water in a reusable container. You can also freeze an 8-ounce portion of milk or chocolate milk. Once it cools down, you might start packing things like soups, chili, and hot chocolate that need to stay warm. Keeping hot foods in insulated bottles is a great way to keep things nice and warm until lunchtime.
No matter what you pack, go green with your insulated lunch bags and choose BPA-free reusable containers instead of bags or containers you'll just toss. Happy eating!
What other tips do you have? I'd love to hear.
*These recipes were adapted from eatingwell.com to be made more kid-friendly.
Hungry for more? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns, and feedback.
Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, helps empower people to build healthy lifestyles. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Scritchfield is a Washington, D.C., based registered dietitian and fitness expert who encourages clients to find exercise that feels great, learn to manage stress, and establish lifelong eating skills that balance individual nutrition needs with hunger and pleasure. Visit her blog at: www.rebeccathinks.com.