The signs of summer ending and school beginning are everywhere. Earlier bed times, morning alarm clocks and backpacks hanging by the door are telltale signs of new daily routines. Why not use this fresh start to begin implementing healthier eating habits for your kids, too? By focusing on packing a balanced lunchbox and providing nutritious (and appealing) snacks after school, you can get the year off to a great start.
First, think about what not to pack. One of the worst lunchbox offenders is the beloved Lunchable. Kids request them and parents oblige because they appear to be a simple and not-so-bad solution to packing a lunch. However, prepackaged meals are notorious for being high in sodium, saturated fats and added sugars and low in fresh whole foods. What kids seem to really enjoy from these type of products is the variety of finger foods they offer. Parents can use this strategy to their benefit and prepare homemade bento boxes, or single portion servings, with well-chosen foods.
While there are plenty of fancy bento boxes available for purchase, you can easily DIY one at home with plastic food storage containers and muffin liners. Whether you build a bento box or use a traditional lunchbox or brown bag, the most important consideration is to incorporate a variety of foods to ensure an array of nutrients. A balanced lunch includes at least three of the five food groups: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy.
You don’t have to ditch sandwich staples, just upgrade the ingredients and reconsider how you present them. Choose whole-grain bread options with three or more grams of fiber per serving. Turn favorite sandwiches into pitas, wraps or roll-ups. Swap mayo-based spreads for stone-ground mustards, hummus or plain Greek yogurt mixed with a ranch seasoning packet. Use baked or grilled meats instead of choosing processed lunchmeat or hotdogs. Forgo the imitation cheese slice for quality cheese cubes. Try cute cookie cutters to turn boring sandwiches into bite-sized entertainment.
When it comes to fruit, it should be whole, dried or canned in 100% juice. Research shows that kids eat more fruit when it has been peeled and sliced for them. Small boxes of dried fruit and real fruit cups are convenient and a better option than cookies and candy. Tangerines, plums and grapes are the perfect size for lunches. Try serving fruit with a calcium-rich yogurt dip. Limit the amount of fruit juice, roll-ups and fruit snacks you offer; they contain added sugars and never provide the same nutritional value as the real deal.
Kid approved vegetables include baby carrots, small broccoli florets and mini-peppers with ranch style dips or hummus. Baked sweet potato fries sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar don’t have to be reheated to retain flavor. Black bean and corn salsa can be a fun dipper for corn chips. Try salad on a stick by alternating carrots, green peppers, cherry tomatoes and low-fat cheese cubes. (Remember to clip the end of the skewer for safety.)
Sodas and sports drinks are the biggest source of added sugars and calories in children’s diet. Pack bottled or sparkling water instead. Make a batch of homemade lemonade with real lemons, mint leaves and minimal added sugar to last the week. Both white and flavored milk provide nine essential vitamins and minerals that are important for good health, including calcium, potassium and vitamin D – three of the four nutrients children are often missing. Look for shelf-stable dairy varieties or provide money for purchasing milk at school.
When it comes to snacks, nutritious options can help curb hunger and maintain energy. Consider snacks as “mini-meals” rather than an excuse for treats. Healthy snacks should represent one to two of the food groups. Try string cheese, graham crackers and to-go peanut butter cups. Cocoa-dusted nuts with cherries may be a hit too. Switch candy bars for granola or fruit and nut bars with a minimum of five grams of fiber. Replace bags of chips with popcorn. For a sweet treat, offer a square of dark chocolate or a mix of coconut flakes, dark chocolate nibs and unsweetened dried fruit.
School lunches don’t have to be boring to be nutritious. Spruce up any packed lunch with compartmentalized trays, your kid’s favorite fresh ingredients and mom-approved foods. This fall, vow to make back to school season as healthy as it can be!
Rebecca Turner is a registered dietitian, certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of “Mind Over Fork.”