Back to school: Lessons for a healthy lunch
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — On school nights, Patti Anderson asks her three children what they want for lunch the next day. Her fridge is stocked to accommodate requests for butcher-sliced turkey with string cheese, low-sodium soup or chopped bell peppers.
She usually leaves her signature on their lunches, too.
“You did a great job on your choices for lunch,” she writes in a note. “I hope you enjoy them. I love you.”
Anderson, a personal trainer who lives in Huntington Beach, has found that letting her children – who are 8, 10 and 12 – pick from a healthy range of options means they’ll eat their lunches. She doesn’t mind packing three meals to suit their tastes.
“It’s important to know they’re getting fed properly so their mind and body work together well to the best of their abilities,” Anderson said. “I know that they’re eating well and don’t just have a bag of chips.”
Beyond her own household, Anderson, 49, has introduced positive reinforcement for healthy lunches to the school cafeteria. During health and fitness week at John H. Eader Elementary, she inspected lunch bags and awarded raffle tickets for each healthy item students brought.
“It becomes fun,” she said. “It’s interactive with the children.”
As students head back to class, cooking and nutrition experts say school lunches can be a learning opportunity, especially when parents involve the students in the process.
Richie Robinson, a chef who teaches cooking classes for children, said kids become more adventurous with food when they get involved with shopping and preparation.
“Make it a game or a ritual,” he said. “If they see the stuff and they touch it and they help prepare it, they’re more interested in eating it.”
Variety and creativity are also important. Parenting magazines often include good recipes, Robinson said.
“Mix it up,” he said. “Kids have taste buds. We gotta remember they’re little chefs.”
Jan Skaar, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said packing a healthy lunch is a good way to reduce the risk of obesity and ensure that kids have adequate energy for learning and after-school activities.
“Kids are growing, and they need their energy during the day,” Skaar said. “It’s a long stretch from the time they leave the house until late afternoon when they might get home. What they’re eating during the day is really important.”
Skaar’s youngest daughter, 16, has outgrown a Disney lunchbox. But she still likes taking her lunch to high school, now in a plain insulated bag.
“I still feel it’s really important for her to have good things to eat during the day,” Skaar said. “Every so often I’ve given my kids the opportunity to buy things at the school. Always they would come back and say, ‘There’s just nothing really good to choose from.’ They got in the habit of liking and wanting the homemade lunch rather than what was offered at school.”
She said parents can avoid the high sodium and nitrates of processed foods like Lunchables by creating their own versions.
Skaar’s favorite items to pack include string cheese, yogurt, fresh fruit, grape tomatoes, sandwiches or rice cakes with peanut butter, and a granola or protein bar.
“We need to try and get away from those packaged foods and try to eat things that are fresher and not processed,” Skaar said. “I may have fruit cups packed in their own juice or water as a backup, but I’d much rather provide the fresh fruit and package those things in little baggies.”
For juice drinks, she said to check the labels for calories and sugar. She suggests letting kids pick out a reusable water bottle for school.
When it comes to picky eaters, Skaar said kids might require multiple exposures to a new food. She recalled her own experience with whole-grain bread and her daughter.
“The first time I made her sandwich she said, ‘Oh, Mom, you gave me cardboard bread.’ I just sort of ignored it and kept buying it. It wasn’t too much longer where she said to me, ‘You know, Mom, I like the cardboard bread.’”
TIPSIdeas for packing healthy lunches
• View food preparation as a part of your child’s daily living skills.
• Think about school lunches when shopping and have plenty of options on hand.
• Pack lunches the night before and include your child.
• Protein bars make for an easy snack. Look for bars with protein ranging from 5 to 10 grams. Bars very high in protein (15- to 20-gram range) usually have an altered taste children might not like.
• In hot weather, freeze grapes, which will also help keep the rest of the lunch chilled.