It’s almost time for back-to-school. Packing the kids’ lunches for school means you have control over which foods they are eating. Parents can manage nutritious meals even when the kids are at school. According to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded with the American Heart Association, American kids consume 35-50 percent of their daily calories while in school. So, healthy lunches can have a big impact on children’s health through good nutrition.
Today, about one in three American kids and teens are overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among children today, obesity is causing a broad range of health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and elevated blood cholesterol levels. Nutrition can go a long way toward preventing these illnesses in children.
Here are some budget-friendly, creative ideas from the American Heart Association to help keep kids happy and healthy at lunchtime:
Make A Smarter Sandwich
While some kids prefer the same thing every day, many kids want variety in their lunches. Sandwiches are easy, portable and kid-friendly.
• Use different breads like 100 percent whole-wheat tortilla wraps (choose wraps low in saturated fat and made with no hydrogenated oils) or 100 percent whole-wheat pita pockets.
• In addition to lettuce and tomato, try shredded carrot or zucchini and sliced cucumbers, peppers, or apple or pear with a turkey sandwich.
• Try avocado or hummus as a swap for cheese or mayo.
• Try a leftover grilled chicken in your sandwich as a healthy swap for lunch meat.
Love Those Leftovers
Think about using the leftovers from a family favorite dinner for a next day lunch. Use a thermos to keep foods hot or cold until the lunch bell rings. The prepared/packaged versions of these foods sometimes have a lot of sodium, so make them homemade with little or no salt, or compare nutrition facts of similar products and choose the ones with less sodium.
• Soup—tomato, vegetable or bean
• Chili (vegetarian or made with lean or extra lean ground chicken)
• Spaghetti or curly pasta salad (whole wheat with veggies and chicken added)
• Bean casserole or beans & rice with vegetables.
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 plain yogurt or peanut butter. Cortland, Empire and Ginger Gold apples brown at a slower rate than other apples.
• Carrot, celery and sweet pepper strips to dip into hummus, fresh salsa or homemade bean dip.
• Whole-grain, low-sodium, low-fat crackers or slices of grilled tofu (a soybean product) to dunk into soup.
Avoid packing sugary drinks like “power” drinks, soda, or sugar-added juices to your kids’ lunchboxes, or home meals. Water or school purchased milk are great options to reduce sugar in the diet. Let the crunchy snacks be fruit or cut veggies, not fried, fatty chips.
Get Them Involved
When kids help pack their lunches, 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 whole grain bread they want and let them assemble their lunch. Make this a weekly routine—it’s another great way to spend family time together.
—Jessica DiMeo is the senior regional director of communications at the American Heart Association.