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What Are Your Kids Having for Lunch?

How to help your children eat healthy at school

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All this is despite the fact that poor eating habits in children not only contribute to childhood obesity but also may increase the risk that they will develop certain chronic diseases as adults, experts say. The prevalence of childhood obesity in the U.S. has doubled since the 1970s.

What's a Parent to Do?

Much as you might like to, you can't follow your children around school all day to make sure they're choosing healthy foods. So what's a parent to do?

McAllister, of course, thinks bringing lunch from home is the best alternative. Not only does this let you decide what they have for lunch, but it also helps keep them away from the vending machines.

"There's no guarantee what the kids will use their lunch money for once they get to school," she says. "You have no control over where that money goes once they leave home."

It's important for kids to have choices, though, she says. So before you pack their lunches or hit the grocery story, ask them what they want: What kind of fruit would they prefer? Which vegetable? What kind of dip? (Kids love to dip, she says; chop broccoli into bite-size pieces and add a container of fat-free dip, and your kids might actually eat their veggies.)

This doesn't mean junk food is an option. "Let the kids have tons of choices, but make sure they're good choices," McAllister says. "A choice between a Ho-Ho and a Ding-Dong is not a choice."

Try to include the five food groups in every lunch, McAllister says: protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods. "Kids don't have a lot of time to eat," she says. "You need to get the most nutrition into them in the least amount of time as possible."

And skip the cookies or other sweets. "Dessert is a treat, not a staple," McAllister says.

If bringing lunch to school isn't considered "cool" among your children's friends, make sure your children get to select their own lunch bags -- whether it's a trendy lunch box with their favorite celebrity or action figure, or an attractive insulated bag that looks more like a fashion accessory than a lunch carrier.

If your children want to buy their lunch at school, encourage them to choose the salad bar, if that's an option, says McAllister. Lean ham, shredded cheese, fruits, and vegetables are good choices, she says.

Avoid Brown-Bag Boredom

If you run out of fresh ideas for brown-bag lunches, here are a few suggested by Jody Villecco, Whole Foods Market's top nutritionist, and Jyl Steinbeck, author of 10 cookbooks for healthy living, including the upcoming Busy Mom's Make It Quick Cookbook:

  • Mozzarella cheese sticks with baked tortilla chips, a container of salsa, and orange segments
  • Fruit, cheese, and meat kabobs: Alternately thread turkey (or other low-fat meat), cheese cubes, bell pepper, and pineapple chunks on Popsicle sticks.
  • Yogurt parfait: A 6-8 oz. container of low-fat yogurt, a snack pack of low-sugar, high-fiber cereal, berries, grapes, apple slices, and/or banana
  • A low-fat tortilla spread with low-fat cream cheese, sprinkled with shredded carrots and raisins.
  • A pita pocket stuffed with lunchtime favorites like tuna, turkey and/or cheese, and chopped vegetables (or with peanut butter and jelly).
  • Cinnamon-raisin pita bread stuffed with cream cheese and grated carrots.
  • Whole-wheat bread with peanut butter, banana, and chopped dates.
  • A hollowed-out red or green pepper stuffed with tuna salad.
  • A hollowed apple filled with a mixture of farmer cheese, granola, and raisins
  • Scooped-out dinner rolls filled with tuna or egg salad.

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