For many parents, part of the back-to-school routine includes packing lunches every day. Because it can feel like a chore, it’s tempting to rely mostly on packaged convenience foods to make up the main parts of the meal, but including some healthful, fresh alternatives can go a long way in making sure your child is maxing out on nutrition during lunch.
“It’s not uncommon to find preservatives, trans fats and other non-nutritive ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup, hiding in the long list of ingredients in pre-packaged convenience foods,” says Jessica Shenk, Dietetic Intern at Grand View Hospital. “Homemade or semi-homemade foods are best to put in a child’s lunchbox.”
Many convenience foods contain empty calories and are low in important vitamins and minerals, which could have a negative impact on your child’s school performance. Lunchbox lunches should provide adequate carbohydrates and protein to ensure children have enough brain power and energy to last the whole day, Shenk says.
Think of ways to make a healthy lunch more exciting for your child. Shenk suggests making a sandwich your child enjoys, then cutting a fun shape into the sandwich with a large cookie cutter, or swapping out sandwich bread with pita bread or a wrap. Anything that gets your child involved and excited about lunch will go a long way in ensuring the food will get eaten.
“Involve your child in the planning process,” says Shenk. “Give them two or three healthy options and let them choose.”
If your child loves Lunchables, a good alternative is to make your own version using ingredients you approve of. Fun containers with different compartments will make your kids feel like they are eating one of their favorite pre-packaged meals.
Colorful, easy-to-grab veggies – like bright red cherry tomatoes, orange baby carrots, or vibrant yellow, orange or green pepper slices –can be fun for kids to eat. Whole grain crackers with cheese or peanut butter, sliced veggies and hummus to dip, sliced fruit, cheese sticks, baked chips and homemade oatmeal raisin cookies are all healthful alternatives to junk food. If you’re pressed for time in the mornings, dinner leftovers and precut fruits or vegetables can make it easy to throw lunches together quickly.
“There is no standard for the best way to assemble a lunch,” Shenk says. “As long as all the necessary nutrients are involved, your child will benefit.”