On Your Health

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How to Make Your Child’s Lunches More Interesting AND Healthy

As students throughout Oklahoma head back to school, parents who pack their children’s lunches are faced with the challenge of sending their children to school with food that’s both healthy and delicious.

Coming up with lunches for the 180 or so school days every year is a daunting task. As the year wears on, it’s hard to think of a healthy variety your child will actually eat.

Each family must decide for itself what’s best, says Pam Patty, a registered dietitian for INTEGRIS. Not everyone has time to pack a lunch in the morning before leaving for work, and time can be an even bigger constraint for families with multiple children. Sometimes, purchasing meals from the school cafeteria is simply more convenient, and many Oklahoma families are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Whether lunches come from home or are bought in the cafeteria line, Patty says parents should have the same goal: providing nutritious food for their children.

Healthy sandwich swaps

Patty says it’s OK to keep things simple. “Peanut butter and jelly is a great standby,” she says. “Nice protein. Sweet jelly. Try to put it on a whole grain bread.”

But don’t be afraid to push your children, Patty encourages. “Not everything’s going to taste like Cheetos, and it shouldn’t,” she says. “When there’s a lack of variety and choices you start to hone in on sweet and salty.”

  • Choose whole wheat for sandwiches, whether it’s bread, tortillas or pita bread. Give lettuce a try, too.
  • Consider swapping out the cheese or mayonnaise with a different spread, such as hummus or avocado.
  • Trade chips for popcorn.
  • Fresh fruit doesn’t have a long shelf life, but it’s healthier than fruit packaged in syrup.
  • Rethink dessert. Instead of cookies or candy, consider trail mix or homemade muffins.
  • If your child enjoys peanut butter and jelly, trade out the jelly for fruit for a healthy change of pace. Bananas and strawberries are popular swaps.

Healthy lunchbox ideas

Some schools have rules about what types of foods and drinks can come from home. For example, some schools ban candy or soda in packed lunches. Including a few snacks or treats is OK, says Patty. A snack-size bag with one or two cookies is better than a whole package of cookies. “I don’t think we should be so austere that we never have foods kids enjoy.”

  • Send a thermos with warm, healthy foods, like soup or chili.
  • Pack a water bottle.
  • Individual milk servings can be expensive at the store, but your child can usually buy milk separately in the lunch line. Even low-fat chocolate milk is a better option than soda.
  • Always offer a veggie, even if it’s something you don’t like. Who knows? Your child might love raw broccoli.
  • Out of ideas? Ask your child. Odds are he or she has spied some classmates’ lunches and has some suggestions. (It’s OK to ignore the ridiculous ones.)
  • Here are 10 more fun lunch ideas for kids or grownups.

Make lunch more fun

Whole fruits and veggies are great, but don’t forget to prepare them. If peeling an orange is tough for a younger student, the fruit will likely end up in the trash because the child will run out of time to both peel and eat it.

“If it needs to be broken down or cut up, send it that way already,” Patty says. “Don’t send it so the teacher has to do it.”

  • Steer clear of utensils if possible, but include a napkin. Finger foods are easiest.
  • Some kids (and adults) love dips, so think about including something extra. Some healthy dip ideas are yogurt, peanut butter, hummus, salsa and local honey.
  • Is your child tired of sandwiches? Leave it out one day. Pack a bag full of small snacks. Sneak in protein with cheese, nuts, hummus or peanut butter.
  • Use holiday zip-top bags or colored cellophane to brighten up your child’s lunch. Plenty of fun food containers are available, too.
  • Don’t be afraid of salads. Let your child pick a few favorite veggies and build a salad together.

Keep your child’s lunches safe

Parents must be mindful of temperature requirements when packing lunches. Foods that need to stay cold -- like deli meat or mayonnaise -- could spoil or grow bacteria if they get too warm before lunchtime. The Oklahoma State Department of Health offers several suggestions for practicing safe food handling when it comes to packing lunches.

  • Always wash your hands before you prepare food, including packing lunches.
  • Wash and dry fruits and veggies before you pack them up. Children may not have a clean place to rinse their food, and they won’t always remember.
  • Use a thermos for warm foods or a cool pack for cold foods. Insulated lunch bags can help keep temperatures safe.
  • Make sure to wash out lunch boxes, or use disposable paper bags.
  • Check out these tips for packing hot lunches.

Packing a lunch isn’t for everyone. Consider, too, allowing your child to eat lunch at school. Go over the cafeteria menu together. Are there days you can agree on?

The federal cafeteria standards have improved greatly in recent decades, Patty says. For example, school lunches have much less sodium than in years past. Most schools work hard to make food both healthy and appetizing.

When the school year starts, a healthy lunch can help ensure your students are making the most of their time in the classroom.

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