You’ve got the kids’ backpacks ready with notebooks, pencils and paper, but what’s your plan for packing healthy back-to-school lunches?
The American Heart Association recommends packing a healthy lunch at home to ensure that kids get the nutrition they need without all the fat, calories and salt found in convenience foods and many school lunch meals. Too much salt, calories and fat can contribute to long-term health issues like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese; nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among children today, obesity is causing health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol levels. (Source: 2011 American Heart Association Understanding Childhood Obesity Statistical Sourcebook)
Tips on packing healthy lunches:
“Kids love to have a variety of foods in their lunch boxes, especially finger foods,” said Gretchen Acquanita, Culinary Institute of America grad and Chef and owner of Epicure Catering & Fine Foods in Poughkeepsie.
When packing a healthy lunch, she suggests choosing from the rainbow of foods in your supermarket’s produce department. Include foods that are red (red peppers, apples, tomatoes), orange (carrots, peaches), green (salad, celery sticks) and choose foods from the different food groups.
“The goal is to provide a variety of healthy options at lunch,” she said, “And getting kids in the kitchen to help pack lunches and help with dinner preparations is a great way to get them excited about eating healthy foods.”
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded in 2005 with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, suggests including one serving of vegetables or salad and one serving of fruit (fresh, canned or dried all count); one serving of a low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy item such as a low-fat cheese stick, a yogurt cup, or some cottage cheese; plus one serving of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, peanut butter, beans or another protein source.
Ten Healthy lunchbox tips:
- Pack healthy drinks such as water, low-fat milk or 100% juice with no added sugar.
- Beverages boxes frozen the night before can keep a lunchbox cool until lunchtime.
- Cut out the calorie-rich and nutrient-empty soda and energy drinks.
- Use whole wheat bread, pita, wraps or flatbreads for sandwiches.
- Pick lean luncheon meats like turkey, ham or leftover chicken breast.
- Use reduced fat mayo or salad dressing or mustard to dress a sandwich
- Add mixed greens or baby spinach leaves for extra nutrients
- Try protein/iron-rich hummus with fresh veggies and whole wheat pita triangles for dipping.
- Low-fat or fat-free calcium-rich cottage cheese with carrots, cherry tomatoes, berries, or melon.
- Top green salads with lean protein like hard-boiled eggs, beans or chicken.
Didn’t pack a lunch? There are many options to choose from in the lunch line at school, some of them are healthier than others. Encourage kids to choose fruits and vegetables instead of French fries or chips and ask for grilled meat instead of fried.
“Review the school lunch menu to select healthier meals in advance,” said Acquanita.
For more information and recipes, visit the American Heart Association at www.heart.org/healthierkids.
Back to school lunchbox strategies:
- Get lunch ready right after dinner when you’re in the kitchen or the night before.
- Pack leftover dinners in lunch-size containers.
- Keep dressings on the side to prevent soggy lunches.
- Freeze healthy drinks to keep your lunch cool.
- Rinse and pack fruit & veggies in snack bags on Sunday night, so they’re ready to go all week long.
- If you’re buying convenience lunches or snacks, look for those with fewer than 100 calories and the least amount of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
- Kids eat more fruit when it’s already cut up. Try oranges and Ginger Gold or Cortland apples since they’re slow to brown.
Watch your portions:
Size matters. Portion size has a lot to do with why our kids are gaining weight. Because there’s too much of everything on their plates, our kids are getting far more calories than they need daily. To start “Operation Portion Control,” you need to know how big a portion size really is. You may be surprised to learn these are serving sizes:
- 1 slice of bread
- ½ cup rice or pasta (cooked)
- 1 small piece of fruit (super-large apples are 2+ servings)
- 1 wedge of melon
- 1/2 cup fruit juice
- 1 cup milk or yogurt
- 2 oz. cheese (about the size of a domino)
- 2-3 oz. meat, poultry or fish (this is about the size of a deck of cards)
Most servings are well over the standard portion size, so we’re all getting extra calories we don’t need. But with a little effort, we can take control. Cutting down the helpings will cut down the waistlines.