Packing a healthy lunch for school children should provide a balance between appeal and health. Some children will naturally eat healthy foods, and will enjoy crunchy vegetables added as a side. For other children one has to get creative and disguise healthy food in more appealing ways.
Normally a healthy lunch should contain one serving of dairy, a serving of whole grains, a serving of protein, and a serving of fruit or vegetables. Serving both fruit and vegetables is great if your child will eat both. These recommendations are based on the US Food Guide Pyramid. Recommendations for main meals are to include at least four out of the five main food groups.
A healthy lunch should not include foods high in sugar like sweetened jams, cookies or chocolate milk. One should also avoid foods high in fat. Potato or corn chips are not recommended. However baked tortilla chips or lightly salted pretzels can be a good way to include grains without including fats.
A healthy lunch should also be packed in a healthy way. For kids who carry a lunch box, purchasing one with a pocket for ice or ice packs to keep food cool is essential. When children carry brown bags, they’re often limited to a few food items only. By keeping food cool, one can add many different types of food without worrying about food spoilage. Thermoses are also excellent since one can send warm and healthy soups for chilly days, or keep milk cold on warm days.
That old classic, peanut butter, is actually quite a healthy lunch sandwich when spread on whole grain bread. It is high in protein, and fairly low in saturated fats. For variety, almond butter, or other nut butters can be equally as healthy. Do look for peanut butter that is unsalted and does not include fillers or sugar.
The peanut butter sandwich can include a small amount of fruit spread. Fruit spread still has a high sugar content but is sweetened only with fructose, not sucrose. So if peanut butter and jelly really hits the spot, look for fruit spread only. Peanut butter can also be sweetened with sliced bananas, raisins or grated carrots, all of them terrific ways to get that veggie or fruit serving in.
If your child enjoys meats, look for low fat meats. Avoid deli meats that are high in salts, nitrates, and fats. It’s better to give a child a slice of roast beef in a sandwich that you have prepared yourself, then to buy sliced roast beef from a deli or the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Sliced homemade chicken or turkey, and tuna are also great ways to keep a sandwich high in protein and low in fat. Use low fat mayo, and always choose to add lettuce, sprouts, tomatoes, and even other sliced veggies to a sandwich for a healthy lunch.
Serving yogurt can also be part of a healthy lunch. Again look for yogurt that is not sweetened with sugar as many store brands are. Yogurt with fruit can be very appealing, and provides both protein and a fruit serving. Alternately fill up the thermos with a homemade yogurt smoothie. Strawberries and bananas sweeten plain yogurt quite nicely.
Avoid fruit juice, as it is high in sugar. Instead offer milk or water. If you can’t keep milk cool enough to the child’s taste, most schools also sell milk relatively inexpensively. A child might pack most of his or her lunch and buy milk at school. If your child is not a milk fan, cubed, sliced or string cheese can fulfill the dairy requirements of a healthy lunch.
Make food and vegetable servings easy to eat, and appealing for a healthy lunch. For example, little hands may have a tough time peeling an orange. If it is cut into sections, or already peeled, it is much more likely to be eaten. Mini carrots can be fun to eat, especially when the child is provided with a yogurt dipping sauce. Different veggies can be cut into rounds, julienne slices, or even silly shapes. Apples should be quartered with peels left on.
Many children truly dislike lack of variety. Thus keep the lunch menus varied. You may even want to involve your children in menu planning by giving them a list of healthy lunch options to choose from. If children are involved in the planning, or even the preparation of a healthy lunch, chances are they will be happy to eat it.