The beginning of school just around the corner, parents are already gearing up to get their kids ready to start the school year. But once they start, parents are often challenged with how to ensure that their children eat healthy lunches that don’t pack on the pounds while they are there. This presents a definite dilemma given that 15 percent of children and teens today are overweight, putting them at higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and ultimately, heart disease.
“The percentage of obese children has nearly doubled in the last 20 years,” said Netty Levine, R.D, C.D.E., a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “And, given that kids spend most of their day in school, the only way you can ensure that that they’re going to eat healthfully is to help them pack a healthy lunch from home.”
Although schools have improved the nutritional value of lunches in the last decade, the meals still contain more fat than the government recommends. Further, many schools have added vending machines and a la carte programs from local restaurants, which do not have to meet the nutritional standards set by the U.S. government.
The following are some ways to help ensure your kids are eating healthy at school:
Make sure your child eats a healthy breakfast. Eating prior to going to school will help kids from being too hungry before lunch. “Make sure your kids have enough time to get ready for school and eat breakfast,” cautions Levine. “A quick breakfast can be a bowl of a low sugar cereal, such as oatmeal or dry toasted oat cereal, low-fat milk or yogurt and fresh fruit.”
Teach your child that her or his bagged lunch needs to include foods from five food groups:
Protein: Try meats lower in fat and cholesterol, such as chicken, turkey, tuna or lower fat luncheon meats. For young children, you may want to cut lunch meat sandwiches into different shapes using a cookie cutter. Lower fat peanut or almond butter can also be used on sandwiches.
Grains: Try rolls, pita bread, lavash for wraps, breadsticks, rice cakes, crackers or tortillas. Whenever possible, select the whole wheat version. If your child will eat cold pasta salad, add low-fat meat, shredded mozzarella and veggies with light a salad dressing.
Vegetables: Try adding tomato and lettuce to your child’s sandwich, or, for appeal add colorful cut-up veggies in baggies such as cherry tomatoes, red, yellow and green peppers or baby carrots.
Fruits: It’s best to give your child fresh fruit that she or he likes first. The second choice would be to use canned fruit in its own juice. “Fruit has fiber and fills kids up, so that they want to eat less during the day,” said Levine. “Juice, however, has the same calories as soda, so it should be served less often.”
Dairy: Try low-fat or non-fat milk, non-fat chocolate milk, low-fat cheese, any type of cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit.
Don’t forget Water: Send along bottled water if your child does not like drinking from the water fountain. Older children might have a locker at school, where they can store several small bottles.
Pack lunches into a thermal-lined lunchbox that includes a freezer pack to keep food refrigerated. “Another alternative would be to use boxes of milk, or small bottles of water that have been frozen in advance to keep foods cold, as they will have defrosted by lunch time,” said Levine.
Provide morning or afternoon snacks for kids to help prevent them from getting hungry and wanting more than what is in their lunch. These could include: lower fat peanut butter and celery; nuts/seeds and trails mixes (nuts are a healthy fat and can be used in moderation); grapes, cherries, pineapple pieces, pears and apples; dried cereals; pretzels; fat-free pudding; graham crackers.
Keep snacks that are higher in fat and calories to a minimum, so the child does not feel deprived. “For example, if your young child wants potato chips and candy, give him both, but limit the number of each to the child’s age, like seven chips and seven M & M’s,” says Levine.
“Emphasizing healthy food choices and involving children in the lunch preparation process, can help them find foods that they enjoy without excessive fat, sugar, and calories.” adds Levine. “Healthy lunch choices can be a carry-over from healthy menu and meal planning at home.”
Courtesy Cedars-Sinai Medical Center