Students are carrying more than just their backpacks as they head back to school. Almost 20 percent of kids from kindergarten on up are packing extra pounds, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. America's children are increasingly afflicted with adult diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. The culprit? In part, the pizza, French fries, and other greasy fare that fills your kid's cafeteria. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group that promotes preventive medicine, children who buy lunch at school are more likely than kids who bring their lunch from home to be overweight and obese and less likely to eat fruits and vegetables. While the Healthy School Meals Act passed earlier this year will attempt to improve adolescent eating patterns by setting new nutrition standards for all food served in schools—from lunchrooms to vending machines—the only way to guarantee that your child's lunch is nutritious and well balanced is to pack it yourself.
Thankfully, creating a healthy midday meal doesn't have to be time-consuming. The key is creativity, says Sherrie Le Masurier, a lifestyle columnist who runs School Lunch Ideas, a trove of healthy recipes that can be quickly prepared. "A lot of kids get bored with sandwiches," she says. "But take the same ingredients and package them in a different way, and it becomes a lunch your child gets excited to eat." Your kid might stick her tongue out at a ham and cheese sandwich, in other words, but gobble up ham and cheese shish kebabs—chunks of skewered whole-grain bread, ham, cheddar cheese, and a few cherry tomatoes.
Another way to improve the odds that your brown bag lunch will actually be eaten—not trashed or traded—is by getting your child involved. Karen Ansel, registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, gets inspiration from her kids. "They come up with all these creative combinations that I would never think of," she says. "Plus, when they pick it out themselves they like it better."
To get your creative juices flowing, Le Masurier and Ansel offer U.S. News a buffet of quick and nutritious options they rely on:
Peanut butter on banana bread. Banana bread is usually an indulgence, but sliced thin and spread with peanut butter and banana medallions, it's a wholesome treat. "Kids have more of a budget for calories than adults do," says Ansel. "As long as there are other healthy ingredients and it's not junk food all around, it's really O.K." Balance it out with a container of low-fat (1 percent) milk.
Greek-yogurt sundae. Greek yogurt has less sugar and twice the protein as the regular counterpart, plus a thick and creamy texture that makes it taste like dessert. Separate containers of strawberries, walnuts, or almonds (sunflower seeds if your school is nut-free), and a tablespoon of chocolate sauce make for tasty toppings a kid can add himself.
Veggies and hummus. For a portable meal that's quick to eat when lunch has to be consumed on the fly, try a container of hummus topped with crumbled feta cheese. Add whole wheat pita chips, carrots, sliced cucumbers, or peppers that kids can dip or eat on the side.
Cheese quesadilla. Many school cafeterias make a microwave oven available. Place a couple of slices of cheese and leftover chicken on a whole wheat tortilla. Nuke for 20 seconds. Add a side of salsa for dipping.
PLT. Instead of a BLT, a PLT—prosciutto, lettuce, and tomato on whole-wheat toast—is faster and leaner. Round it out with a pear or apple.
Pizza pita. Tuck tomato and mozzarella slices into a pita pocket—add chopped basil leaves if your child is adventurous. Include a container of tomato sauce. Plop on a cafeteria plate, stick in the microwave.
Turkey sandwich with a twist. Bread manufacturers have recently introduced prepackaged rolls of whole-wheat ciabatta bread, which, along with pitas, tortillas, and flatbreads, can spark up the standard turkey sandwich. In Ansel's remake, a chunk of brie (or any spreadable cheese) plus a spoonful of pesto is a healthier stand-in for mayo. She advises using no more than 2 ounces of deli meat to keep sodium levels in check.