Back to school time brings with it a flurry of activities, but be sure to make time to plan healthy meals for your child’s lunch box. Eating a healthy lunch does not mean sacrificing taste or variety. With a little planning, your child will enjoy their food and reap the rewards of healthy eating. The American Heart Association (AHA) makes these suggestions for packing a wholesome lunch:
- Simplify the morning rush by cooking large meals on the weekend and repacking food into daily lunch portions.
- Use bread or wraps that are 100% whole wheat.
- Add a few vegetables like avocado or shredded carrots to a lean turkey or roast beef sandwich.
- Buy low fat, low sodium cheeses.
- Pack lots of fruits and vegetables, like baby carrots, celery with low-fat cream cheese, and grape tomatoes.
- Use a sandwich or cookie cutter to cut a sandwich into fun shapes.
- Make use of leftovers. Foods like sliced grilled chicken or pork provides necessary protein in a tasty sandwich.
- Remember to add a mini ice pack to keep food fresh and safe, or keep things cool by adding frozen fruit or yogurt that will thaw in time for lunchtime.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides guidelines for schools to provide healthy lunch options. While they are targeted to those purchasing a school lunch, the same general guidelines apply to those who bring lunch from home.
Make Simple Switches
Make simple dietary switches can make a big difference to the nutritional value of your son or daughter’s lunch. For instance, parents may be surprised to learn how much salt is in the foods their children eat. Too much sodium in a child’s diet puts them at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, so taking steps to avoid too much is important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests following these tips to monitor your child’s salt intake:
- Buy deli meat marked low-sodium.
- Buy vegetables that are fresh, frozen (without sauce), or canned with labels that say no salt added.
- Beware of processed foods like soups, packaged pasta, and Mexican food meals. Pay special attention to the sodium content per serving and how many servings are in each package.
- Pizza, bread, and cheese often have high sodium, so be sure to check the nutrition label and choose one with the lowest amount.
Switching to lower sodium foods can greatly decrease the amount of salt your child consumes, without impacting taste. In fact, your child likely will not notice a difference at all. The recommended daily sodium intake for children aged 6 to 18 years is 2,300 mg. Children in these groups should eat even less sodium, 1,500 mg per day:
- African-Americans, and those with
- Chronic kidney disease
Making even small changes can greatly lower daily salt consumption.
Limit the Sweet Stuff
As with sodium, excess sugar put children at risk for obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiac issues. While it is fine for most kids to have an occasional treat, new guidelines published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation recommend that “Children ages 2 to 18 should eat or drink less than six teaspoons of added sugars daily. Six teaspoons of added sugars is equivalent to about 100 calories or 25 grams.”
Added sugars include table sugar, fructose, and honey that are either already in processed food or that are added to food at home. Instead of cookies or cupcakes for a lunchbox dessert, try a handful of blueberries, strawberries or a banana. Likewise, be sure to include beverages when calculating your child’s daily sugar intake. A simple switch from soda or juice to low or non-fat milk or water is a healthier choice and can dramatically cut the amount of sugar your child consumes each day.
Make Lunch Fun!
Kids love to play with their food, and lunchtime is a great time to give them some easy, fun alternatives:
- Try slicing whole fruit and letting them dip it into a low-fat, low-sugar yogurt.
- Crisp carrots, celery, or sweet pepper strips become more fun when dunked in hummus, homemade salsa, or bean dip.
- Dip low-sodium, whole grain crackers in low-sodium vegetable or tomato soup.
- Mix low-fat, low-sugar granola or other whole wheat cereal and a sliced banana into yogurt for a sweet dessert.
In general, lunches that are most healthy limit junk food and include highly nutritional foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meat, poultry and fish.
Remember to get kids involved in packing their own lunches. Give them several options and let them pick the fruits, vegetables, and sandwich that they want to bring. Kids who pack their own lunch are more likely to eat it!