With summer break now officially over for school children all across our area, it’s time to get back into the school day routine. For kids, this means going to bed on time, getting up on time and getting back in the habit of homework. For parents, it means shifting back to doing all those mom and dad things you may have set aside for the last two months, such as lunch planning. Just because your kids will be back to eating their lunches in a school cafeteria, that doesn’t mean they can’t continue to eat healthy. Whether it’s because they’re picky eaters or because they have food allergies, many parents pack lunches for their kids every single day. Doing so can even help kids avoid long lunch lines. But, how do you keep those brown-bag lunches interesting after a few days of the same-old-same?
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce says there are some specific things to remember when planning lunches for kids. “It’s all about presentation,” she said. “Sometimes, even the wording can be changed to make lunches more interesting. A burrito, for instance, might sound a little boring if you just call it a ‘burrito.’ But, if you called it ‘the Big, Bad Bean Burrito,’ then you’ve got something that grabs attention and seems more interesting to kids.”
Pierce says there also are some ways to spice up those side dishes. “Fruits and veggies may be boring or unappetizing to a child, but one thing we know about kids is that they love to dip,” she said. “Try adding a low-fat dip or salad dressing with those veggies, or a little caramel dip or peanut butter with apples, to make them more palatable. Sometimes it helps to give in a little,” she added.
Along with that idea, Pierce says kids should have some say in what goes into their lunches. Allow them to add items to the grocery list by asking them which fruits or veggies they like to eat and what kinds of dips they enjoy. Pierce also suggests creating kabobs out of cheese cubes, grapes, pineapple and turkey, or using cookie cutters to turn simple sandwiches into fun shapes. Sugary sides, however, should be kept to a minimum. “Save sweets or sodas for special occasions or treats,” she said. “When you’re shopping for healthy school lunch elements, be sure to look carefully at the ingredients,” she continued. “Products that contain refined white flour are used a lot for taste acceptance in things such as white bread and pretzels. They may have some benefits, such as being low in fat, but they also are low in fiber, so it may not be as filling as the whole grain varieties. Many yogurts and juices marketed to kids also can do more harm than good, so be sure to keep a close eye on the sugars and additives,” she explained.
Overall, Pierce says parents should remember to keep things simple, nutritious and fun. “Aim for a lean protein, a whole grain, a fruit, vegetable or both, and a calcium-rich source,” she said. “The challenge during lunchtime is the limited amount of time kids have to get their food. It’s easy to eat a lot of calories in a short period of time if high-calorie foods are consumed. The advantage here is that it takes the brain 15 to 20 minutes to get the signal that we are getting full, and foods that are nutrient-dense and have fiber provide that fullness,” Pierce said. “If we learn to slow down and notice when we are full in our youth, then we are more likely to maintain those habits and be a healthy weight as adults,” she added.