In an era in which we are bombarded with media articles about “pink slime” in school cafeterias and pizza being considered a vegetable because it contains tomato sauce, it is natural for parents to want to provide healthy alternatives to the lunches provided by schools. But this provides a challenge. What should we pack in their lunch boxes? And how do we get them to eat it?
The importance of nutrition for school-aged children cannot be overemphasized. Numerous studies have shown that kids who eat nutritionally balanced lunches do better in school, and miss fewer days of school because of illness. Balanced lunches – including foods from each of the major food groups – can help kids to keep their brains alert and their energy up during the long school day, and prevent sluggishness and energy “drop outs” due to low blood sugar.
Fortunately, there are dozens of websites on the Internet that provide tasty yet nutritional recipes for kids; just do a search in your favorite browser for “healthy school lunch ideas” and you’ll be able to find hundreds of new recipes to try and many ideas for how to make them more appealing. Here are a few general ideas to get you started:
- Try to include at least three of the four major food groups – grains and breads, meats, milk and dairy, and fruits and vegetables – in each meal. A balance of carbohydrates, protein, fats and other nutrients will help to keep kids’ energy up during the afternoons.
- Consider alternatives to the same (to kids) boring old sandwiches. You can use bagels or pita breads or sourdough rolls, or prepare “roll ups” using flour or corn tortillas. Instead of processed meats and cheese slices, use cookie cutters to cut up healthier meats that you prepare yourself or healthier cheeses into shapes that entice your kids to eat them.
- Encourage your kids to be part of the lunch-planning and lunch-preparation process. They’ll be more likely to eat and enjoy lunches that they helped to choose or prepare. Also, it provides an opportunity for you to teach them more about nutrition, and what is healthy for them.
- If your kids are prone to snacking, include healthy snacks like dried fruits and nuts, or make your own. Instead of pre-made packets of crackers and cheese, consider making your own, using healthier whole-grain crackers and real cheeses, instead of white-flour crackers and “cheese food.”
- Variety, variety, variety. Instead of a sandwich, consider creating a “dipping lunch” that is all bite-sized and can be dunked in a sauce. You can package up the various ingredients in inexpensive plastic containers. For example, you can combine carrot and celery sticks with a ranch dressing dip, or strips of chicken with a tasty honey-mustard sauce. Cottage cheese, yogurt, guacamole, or hummus can also be healthy dips.
These are just a few ideas for “spicing up” your children’s school lunches. Use them as a starting point for creating more ideas of your own. Work with your kids to find the things they like best, and chances are they’ll both eat them, and enjoy them.