As the new school year approaches, parents rush to equip their children with the right school supplies, clothes and accessories. But one of the most important tools for a successful school year is often overlooked – a healthy lunch.
Scott & White pediatrician, Jennifer Helmcamp, MD, offers some tips to parents who are looking to give their children a good nutritional start.
Pack a Lunch
“One of the things I tell families, especially if they are trying to watch the health of their child, is to bring their lunch at least three times a week,” Dr. Helmcamp said. “I know sometimes bringing it every day is really hard for a family because you have to plan ahead and get it made. But if they try to send them three times a week with a lunch, then that gives them some variety and healthy food options.”
Include Fruits and Veggies
Parents should include a fruit and vegetable with something in every packed lunch.
“Some good choices are soybeans or edamame with a little bit of salt,” the pediatrician said. “Children really like those and they can be eaten cold.”
Some other options are grape tomatoes or baby carrots. They can be eaten raw and you can include a low-fat dressing to give your child some variety.
And if your child is more hesitant to eat veggies, you can sneak them in by slicing up some cucumbers and carrots and hiding them inside of a whole wheat tortilla wrap with turkey or ham lunch meat and cheese.
Give Healthier Alternatives to Favorite Meals
“If your child loves peanut butter and jelly, that’s fine,” Dr. Helmcamp said. “Just make it a little healthier by getting the all-natural peanut butter with less sugar and putting it on wheat bread.”
Pack Familiar Foods
If you’re determined to give your child a healthier lunch, just make sure it is something they have tried at home.
“You don’t want to send something they’ve never had before,” she said. “It needs to be something that they can help you make and they have somewhat of an interest in eating.”
Include Servings of Necessary Nutrients
At lunch time, children should get about two servings of carbohydrates, a serving of protein and a serving of fruits and vegetables to have enough energy for the rest of the day.
A piece of fruit and a half a cup of vegetables is a serving size and one piece of bread is a serving size of carbohydrates.
“This is where most people go wrong in the lunchbox,” Dr. Helmcamp said. “You have a sandwich with two slices of bread, which is two servings and then you have chips or pretzels, which is usually a whole cup. So there’s two more servings.”
The pediatrician said there’s no need to include pretzels and other cracker-type items, but if your child really likes them, she suggests giving them a half a cup of their favorite snack and a half a sandwich.
Avoid Sugary Items
“You really want to avoid sugary items because that really drains them by the end of the day,” she said. “Not to mention, sugar can have an effect on behavior.”
There is not conclusive data that says that sugar is related to behavior issues, but parents should keep in mind how sugar affects their child.
“If you think your child could be affected by sugary items, then you should keep that in mind,” the doctor said. “Think about the teachers because they will be the ones who have to deal with the effects.”
Juices and sodas contain a lot of sugar and should be avoided at lunch time. A bottle of water or low-fat milk is a much better choice, Dr. Helmcamp said.
Avoid Pre-made Lunch Options
“I like to avoid some of the premade lunch items like the Lunchables, because they are really high in sodium and carbohydrates,” she said. “Every once in a while they are okay, but I would not recommend that parents give them on a regular basis.”
Start the Day with a Good Breakfast
“Parents don’t take the opportunity to give children a fruit or a vegetable at breakfast,” Dr. Helmcamp said. “Giving a vegetable at breakfast is unheard of, and it’s totally fine. It won’t hurt the child.”
A good way to sneak veggies into breakfast is to make a smoothie. Vegetables like spinach or kale have a lot of nutrients and are usually undetectable in a smoothie that is masked by stronger fruit flavors like strawberries or bananas.
Smoothies are also a good option for those kids who aren’t always very interested in eating breakfast.
Why is it important to pack a healthy lunch?
“Lunch time is so important because it’s a good time for children to get fruits and vegetables and you don’t have to try to make up for it all at dinner time.”
Packing a healthy lunch also helps kids get the recommended daily nutrition. In a 24-hour period, children should be getting:
- Five or six servings of carbohydrates
- Three servings of dairy
- Two servings of protein
- Five or six servings of fruit and vegetables
For more healthy eating tips and sample menus, visit ChooseMyPlate.gov, sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture.