The Secret to Better School Lunches

Nutritious and delicious school lunches kids will eat.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 20, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Back to school means scrubbed kids carrying shiny new lunch boxes. It also means stumped moms staring into the fridge, desperately seeking ways to sneak even a little bit of nutrition into their child's midday meal. "One of the biggest mistakes parents make is sending too much and the wrong kinds of food in their child's lunch box," says Elizabeth Ward, author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids. Use your child's fist as a guideline to perfect portion sizes.

An ideal lunch is nutritious and has enough calories to fuel brain and motor activity but not too many calories, which can cause hyperactive or sluggish post-lunch behavior. It's time to think beyond two slices of bread. "Sandwiches are fine for the first few weeks, then the monotony sets in and you need to get out of the sandwich rut," says Ward. Here are some kid-approved nutritious favorites.

Don't forget to include a frozen 100% fruit-juice box to keep foods cool until lunchtime.

Hole Foods
Top a cinnamon-raisin bagel with peanut butter and banana. Add a carton of yogurt and a few celery sticks.

Kool Kabobs
Throw in kabobs of any type. Thread low-fat meat, low-fat cheese, pineapple and cherry tomatoes onto a stick. Include whole-grain crackers and a carton of milk.

Try a Tortilla
Spread a low-fat tortilla with egg salad, shredded carrots and cucumber slices. Toss in a yogurt smoothie made with fruit.

Pocket Change
Stuff a pita pocket with fat-free refried beans, shredded cheese, chopped tomatoes, or salsa. Add a carton of milk and fruit.

Layers of Fun
Make your own parfait. In a tall, clear plastic glass. Include low-fat yogurt, fresh fruit and a high-fiber, crunchy cereal and trail mix of craisins, nuts and seeds for a lunchtime treat.

On a Roll
Scoop out a whole-grain roll and fill it with tuna salad made with chopped apples and celery. Add cheese cubes, baby carrots, and 100% fruit juice.

It's a Wrap
Place a slice of turkey, Swiss cheese, a few leaves of fresh spinach, and cranberry relish on a colorful wrap -- and then wrap it up! Add a can of tomato juice and a piece of fresh fruit.

Salad Days
Toss in a single-serve bag of ready-to-eat salad with low-fat dressing, cubes of lean meat, cheese, and assorted veggies. Team with whole-grain bread sticks and a carton of low-fat milk.

Pack a Five-Star Lunch
Balance and variety are the keys to packing a lunch kids will love. A healthy meal consists of an adequate serving of at least three of the following five food groups for balanced nutrition:

Dairy -- string cheese, cheese cubes, low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk, pudding made with low-fat milk, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified orange juice.

Fruit -- fresh fruit such as orange segments, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, pears, apples, dried fruit, 100% juice boxes, canned fruit cups in juice.

Vegetables -- baby carrots, grape tomatoes, celery sticks, salsa, tomato juice, red bell peppers, broccoli.

Whole grains -- whole-grain breads, tortillas, wraps, cereals, crackers.

Lean protein -- beans, nuts, seeds, turkey, chicken, tuna, lean lunch meat, peanut butter, veggie burgers, bean salad, hummus.

Banish Boredom
Think variety when packing school lunches. Children will delight to find a variety of their favorite foods in their lunch boxes. Kids love foods that are a surprise and stimulate the appetite. Make things interesting by packing a theme-based lunch based on a subject your child is studying in school. Shape sandwiches with cookie cutters to add interest. Anything they can dip makes eating more fun for kids, including fruit and veggies into yogurt, low-fat dressing, or salsa. Remember that we eat with our eyes. Food has to look as good as it tastes to get past your child's mouth. Prepackaged deli meals and snacks are convenient but are often loaded with sodium, fat, and sugar. Reserve these for occasional treats. Small portions of "extras" such as plain cookies, graham crackers, baked chips, or bite-size candy bars are perfectly fine additions that kids love. Low-fat chocolate milk has extra sugar but contains other valuable nutrients that can contribute to a nutritious meal.

Take a Food Field Trip
One way to increase the odds that kids will actually eat and enjoy a nutritious noon meal is to take Junior to the grocery store with you and together decide what should go into the lunchbox. Keep in mind that "F" is for both food and fun when it comes to school lunches to help make sure your kid gets an A in nutrition.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author, Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids. New release, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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