It’s back to school time and time for parents to make the decision “do I pack a lunch or have my child buy?” School lunches have received a lot of bad press lately, especially with the Jamie Oliver specials. Unfortunately, schools do not have a budget for chefs and freshly bought foods, but they do have strict guidelines that may seem bad, but in reality, to qualify for federal reimbursements, school lunches must meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s total caloric intake come from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. Federal regulations also mandate that school lunches provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.
If you decide to “pack a lunch” instead of “buying” this does not mean – go to the grocery store and pick up a “packaged lunch”; these convenient little packages are still processed food with lots of sodium, fat and sugar. I know many parents struggle to find healthy foods their children will take to school and actually eat. Shopping smart and trying new ideas can help parents send kids back to school this fall with lunches that are good for them and taste great. Check out the following tips to help make school lunches nutritious and fun.
Focus on fruits and veggies. Incorporating fruits and vegetables into lunches can be easy. Packing whole fruits like an apple or a bunch of grapes is easy and delicious. Individual containers of applesauce, pears, peaches, and pineapples also make a tasty treat (packed in their own juice please). Vegetables are another healthy addition to a lunch. Sliced zucchini and cucumbers, red and green pepper strips, broccoli, carrots, celery, and cauliflower are raw veggies that are easy to pack. Try adding a low-fat salad dressing or hummus as a dip. Check out my Jack-O-Lantern hummus (http://rd4health.com/584/jack-o-lantern-hummus/).
Spice up fruit. Make fruit fun to eat by packing a dip for them, such as low-fat yogurt or pudding. Try different fruits with different textures so children do not get bored. Intermix crunchy apples with juicy oranges. Make a fruit salad, mix sweet fruits like apples, bananas, and pears with acidic fruits like oranges and pineapples. The acidic juices will help prevent the fruit from turning brown.
Whole grain goodness. Use whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice. Whole-grain cereal is a fun alternative to potato chips for a snack. Make your own snack mix with whole grain cereal and a variety of nuts and dried fruit. Popcorn (without added butter) is also a whole grain snack and fun to eat.
Food labels are your friend. When buying canned or individual containers of fruit, make sure it has no added sugar and is packed in its own juice or water. Read labels to make sure products are made with whole grains. Just because the bread is brown or multi-grain this doesn’t mean its whole grain. Check the ingredients list to make sure the first ingredients is brown rice, bulgur, whole-grain corn, whole wheat, oatmeal, whole oats, whole rye, or wild rice.
What to drink? Choose juices that are 100% juice, avoid juices that have sugars or caloric sweeteners listed as their first ingredient. Many juices are only 10 to 20 percent juice and contain a lot of unnecessary sugars. Again, read the label.
Calcium counts. Make lunches healthier by adding low-fat dairy or calcium-rich foods. About 85-90 percent of adult bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and 20 in boys. The best ways to get calcium are dairy products such as milk, yogurt, sliced cheese (string cheese is a kid-friendly favorite), cottage cheese as well as calcium-fortified foods such as some juices and cereals.
Food Safety. Packing lunches in an insulated, soft-sides lunch boxes or bags is best for keeping food cold. Use an ice pack, gel pack, or freeze a juice box, or bottled water. Protein foods need to be kept cold; these include meat, fish, poultry, lunch meats, milk, cheese, and yogurt.
Beware of cross-contamination. This can happen by reusing paper or plastic bags, food wraps and aluminum foil. Have children discard used food packaging and bags after lunch. Throw away perishable leftovers unless they can be safely chilled immediately after lunch and when they are brought home.
This school year when preparing lunches for kids, remember to focus on variety, check out food labels, and try out different flavors and textures. Also, follow the MyPlate guidelines (http://rd4health.com/584/jack-o-lantern-hummus/) when packing lunch, make sure to include a protein, starch, and fruits and veggies and your child will be fueled for learning!