Think Outside the Lunchbox

school lunch 177

How do you assemble your child's school lunch? If you're like many parents, your packing repertoire consists of a deli-meat sandwich, chips and a soda. After all, if you slip carrots or an apple in, they'll likely get tossed out—right?

Believe it or not, it's possible to pack healthy lunches your child will love. All that's needed is a little consistency and creativity.

Strike a Balance

To be nutritious, a lunch should include at least three to four food groups. This concept is known as the "balanced plate," but can easily be assembled in a packed lunch. "With each lunch, make sure you've included a protein, a starch, and a fruit or vegetable," says Katie Boles, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian with Brenner Children's Hospital. "There are so many different ways you can do this."

Rather than sliced bread, you can assemble sandwiches on bagels, English muffins, tortillas or pita bread. Other starches you can play around with are crackers, pretzels and dry cereal. Your protein can include any kind of meat (turkey, ham, chicken, tuna), cheese, nuts and spreads (hummus, peanut butter). It's a great idea if you can incorporate both a vegetable and a fruit into each lunch, but at least include one. Fruits and vegetables can be fresh, canned or frozen.

Switch Things Up

One of the best ways to get your child to eat a balanced lunch is to make it more interesting—and getting creative doesn't have to be expensive or time-consuming. Consider some of Boles' lunch ideas:

  • English muffins or pita slices as mini cheese pizzas
  • Homemade lunchables with crackers and various slices of meat and cheese
  • "Sushi" sandwiches (a wrap rolled up and cut into little bites)
  • Soup or leftovers in a thermos
  • Pasta salad with fruit, nuts, vegetables, chicken and poppy seed dressing
  • Whole-grain bagels with low-fat cream cheese
  • Tuna salad with crackers
  • Antipasto with sliced lean turkey, low-fat cheese cubes, whole-grain crackers and grapes
  • Cheese and tomato quesadillas
  • Pita wedges with hummus

When it comes to snacks that will be eaten separate from lunch, try to combine at least two food groups, usually a protein and a starch. Some examples include:

  • Yogurt with fruit or granola
  • Trail mix that includes nuts and pretzels or cereal
  • Celery with peanut butter
  • Cheese sticks and baby carrots
  • Tortilla chips with salsa
  • Peanut butter crackers

The lunches and snacks your child will enjoy most are the ones he has input in. As long as you stick with the rule of combining multiple food groups, let him help select what he wants to eat.

Set Standards, but Be Flexible

Eating healthy isn't exclusive to school lunches. To make the idea more palatable to your child, incorporate the balanced plate concept into all of your family meals. "Even if you're at a fast food restaurant like McDonald's, order fruit with your cheeseburger and fries," says Boles. "This shows your child that it's normal to add fruit to a meal, so when you start adding it to his lunchbox, it won't seem out of place."

And while you should be consistent with healthy foods, it's OK to allow your child the occasional less-than-nutritious treat. Just be sure that you still try to maintain balance. So if, for example, your child has a snack of cookies, make sure you also include milk.

It's also important to remember not to be hard on your child if he doesn't always eat everything you pack. "It's OK that kids don't always eat what's been packed for their lunches; as adults, we don't always eat what we pack either," says Boles. "Just continue exposing your child to fruits, vegetables and healthy combinations. That's what's going to eventually get him used to eating healthy foods."

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Last Updated: 04-14-2014
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Disclaimer: The information on this website is for general informational purposes only and SHOULD NOT be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice, evaluation or care from your physician or other qualified health care provider.