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Healthy School Lunches: Tips and Tricks to Get Your Children Excited About Eating Right

By Sue Teske, MS, RD, CNSC; Clinical Nutrition Director at Children’s of Alabama

Getting your child to eat healthy is not always an easy task. As the Clinical Nutrition Director at Children’s, I am often asked how to get children to eat healthy. In a world full of readily available fast food, pre-packagedand processed junk foods; it can be challenging to get kids to eat the foods that are good for them. Food manufacturers use blatant and subtle marketing techniques directed to children on television, in magazines and in grocery stores.  Friends and other kids at school who do not have healthy eating habits may influence your child. As a Registered Dietitian let me make a few suggestions to get your kids involved and learn about nutrition and healthy eating.

Involve your child in planning lunches and making healthy choices. Kids love hands-on activities. Making school lunches together is the perfect way to get your kids involved in the healthy eating process and helping out. It also opens the door for conversations about different food groups, how food is fuel, regular physical activity and many other healthy habit topics. Give your kids choices between different healthy options. Ask if they would rather have an apple or a banana as their fruit or celery or carrots as their vegetable. Variety will keep your kids interested in healthy eating while teaching them how to make healthy decisions for themselves.

Make healthy lunches fun! Use cookie cutters to make shapes out of sandwiches. Buy your child a lunchbox with his or her favorite character on it. Write notes on your child’s napkin. Make creative side items at home together and let your kids come up with a special name. Have you ever heard of ants on a log (celery sticks, filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins)? What about a pasta salad made with colorful veggie bow tie pasta? Make a mini lunch – two turkey and cheese mini bagels, cherry tomatoes and mini pretzels.  Have a weekly lunch theme – on Hawaiian week, swap their usual drink for sugar-free, coconut-flavored water. Let your child decorate their brown paper bag. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Plan ahead. With the hustle and bustle of school mornings, it is difficult to throw together a lunch at all – much less a healthy one. Make school lunches the night before and leave them in the refrigerator. In the morning, when the rush begins, school lunches are a grab-and-go item. You can rest assured that your child is getting the healthy nourishment that they need and still get them to class on time.

Try new things. The more healthy foods your kids try and enjoy; the more healthy foods they will be happy to see in their school lunches. Eating the same things over and over is referred to as food-jags.  This can lead to burnout and cause your child to reject those foods. Instead, make trying healthy, new foods fun. Add one new item to your child’s lunch each week for them to try and include a voting slip with boxes that they can check with phrases like, “yummy,” “yucky,” “more, please,” or “no, thank you.” Try new foods like kiwi or pluots, or hummus or Greek yogurt.

Keep it safe. A big part of healthy lunches is about food safety. It is so important to keep foods at the proper temperature – even when they are in a lunch box. To keep foods cold, use ice packs that are fun shapes or colors. You also can put water or drink bottles in the freezer the night before to help keep foods cold longer. Hot items need to stay hot.  You can use a thermos for soups or other hot foods. Also, don’t be afraid to email your child’s teacher and ask them if your child will have access to a microwave or refrigerator.

Healthy lunches should include protein, whole-grain, fruit or vegetable and a healthy beverage such as water, fat-free milk or 100% juice (remember to keep juice to a limit of 6-8 ounces per day). Try to include at least three food groups in your child’s lunch every day. There are so many ways to prepare healthy lunches for your kids – don’t be afraid to step outside of the box to give your children what they need. Try some of these kid friendly favorites that sometimes get over looked: Tuna, Avocado, Cherries, Hummus, Edamame, Dried Cranberries, Cottage Cheese, Apricots, Whole Grain Crackers, Whole Wheat Pita Pockets, Tortillas, or Bagels; Whole Grain or Veggie Pastas, or Greek Yogurt.

You are a role model for your child.  Be sure to set an example and eat a variety of healthy foods.

This will help your child to develop habits for a healthy lifestyle. Now is the time to put these yummy lessons into practice. Follow these healthy school lunch suggestions and your kids will think you are a star student, too!

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