Healthy School Lunch
Consider nutritious options
Practicing good nutrition at school and home can make a huge difference in your child’s overall health and their eating habits later down the road. If you typically pack your kid’s lunch for school, adding nutritious options is a great way to instill healthy habits. A healthy lunch should include choices from the different food groups. A good rule of thumb is to pack a fruit, a vegetable, a lean protein, a whole grain and a low-fat dairy. If you find it difficult to include every food group in the lunchbox, try for as many as you can, and aim to pack at least one fruit or vegetable.
There are a variety of fruits that pack well in a lunchbox. Fresh fruit is ideal, but other options are nutritious, too. Be sure to wash fruits before packing them and try to prepare fruits ahead of time if you know that your child has a short lunch period. Kiwi, strawberries and citrus fruits can all be pre-cut and last well in a chilled, insulated lunch box. Apples cut into slices can be brushed with lemon juice or soaked in orange juice before packing to prevent browning. If your family prefers pre-packaged fruit cups, choose options where the fruit is packed in its own juice or water.
Vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals for growth and development. To add more veggies to your kid’s lunch, try serving options like bell pepper strips, fresh asparagus spears, grape or cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, fresh snap peas, cucumber slices, fresh broccoli or cauliflower florets, or carrot coins or sticks. To spice it up, serve veggies with a dip (think ranch, hummus or guacamole). Vegetables can also be added to sandwiches, wraps or soup stored in a thermos.
A lean source of protein at lunch helps sustain your kid through an active, busy school day. Leaner lunch meat like chicken and turkey breast are classic favorites, but try varying the protein routine with a boiled egg, yogurt, nuts (if allowed at the school), hummus, sunflower seeds, edamame, roasted chickpeas, cheese, or meatballs or soup stored in a thermos.
Whole grains provide a variety of vitamins and minerals compared to refined grains. If you’re trying to find a whole grain product at the store, look at the ingredients list on the label. The first ingredient should be a whole grain (whole wheat flour, whole grain flour, whole oats). Try to pack choices like whole wheat crackers, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole wheat bread, pita bread, bagels or tortillas, whole wheat English muffins, popcorn, whole grain pretzels and whole grain cereal. Add brown rice or whole wheat pasta to a thermos of soup, make a healthy sandwich or wrap with a whole wheat option, pack a trail mix with whole wheat cereal added in, or serve cheese and lunch meat or hummus with whole wheat crackers.
Low-fat and fat-free dairy provides calcium and vitamin D, essential for building and maintaining healthy bones as your child grows. Choices like fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese provide these helpful nutrients. Try packing yogurt with fruits for a parfait, a single serving carton of milk, or a serving of cheese to munch on. You can also add cheese to wraps and sandwiches. If your child is allergic or intolerant to milk, dairy alternatives can also provide some calcium and vitamin D.
If picky eating stands in the way of your child eating some of the options discussed above, know that patience, practice and presentation are key. Be patient – if your kid doesn’t like a food just yet, that’s OK! It can take 15 tries of a new food before a kid (and even an adult) tolerates it. With patience comes lots of practice. Practice modeling healthy eating at home and encourage your child to try new foods with you. Practice building healthy meals together and let your child pick their favorite fruits and vegetables to prepare and eat. Finally, presentation can make a difference. If your kid doesn’t prefer a particular food, try preparing it differently.
Cut foods in creative shapes, try new cooking methods and arrange foods on the plate in fun, different ways.
Research shows that lifelong eating habits start at an early age. The foods we feed our kids today make a difference in their health when they are adults.
It’s never too late to make healthy changes for your family, even if this means starting small. Adding healthy choices during lunch is a great way to make gradual changes.
Abigail McAlister is an asssistant extension agent (general nutrition) for the LSU AgCenter. Her main focus is adult nutrition education and promotion in Caddo and Bossier parishes. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.