Last week we talked about keeping your child’s packed lunch safe, so this week we are going to talk about what to pack to keep it healthy.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that you also need to check with your school about their regulations. Many schools have “banned” foods due to students with allergies, and some even have requirements about what must be included in the lunch. And, even the best plans can be foiled by picky eaters, so remember that these are just ideas, and you have to do the best you can for your individual child.
In general, you want to include sources of protein, whole grains, dairy, fruit, and vegetables. You also want to limit high calorie, low nutrient foods like chips and sweets. So, lets take a look at each food you want to include.
Protein: Good sources include meat, cheese (which is also dairy), fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and tofu. Most commonly, you see these items packed as the filling as a sandwich, but they don’t have to be. They could also be in soups or casseroles packed in a thermos to keep them hot. Or, they could be used to top a salad or made into a salad that is eaten with a fork or dipped on to crackers. If you pack them on a salad, be sure to pack them and the dressing separately to keep the lettuce from wilting. Your child can then put the salad together at lunch time. This option is probably best for older children.
Whole Grains: You hear a lot about intolerance for grains these days, but unless you actually have a condition that makes you intolerant, grains are healthy. Just make sure they are whole grains, so that they have the fiber and protein to keep your child full. Refined grains are used up quickly by the body and don’t keep hunger away for very long. They are also more likely to be turned into fat by the body. Most often, you find whole grains in lunches as sandwich bread, but you could also use whole grain crackers, wraps, or cookies.
Dairy – Unless you have allergies or intolerances, dairy is a great source of calcium and protein. You could pack cheeses or put them on a sandwich to include dairy in your child’s lunch. Yogurt is also a good dairy source that you could include.You could also simply have your child buy milk at school.
Fruit – Fruit is probably the easiest thing to put in your child’s lunch because you can put in a whole piece. A clean, dry, whole apple, banana, or orange can be just placed inside the lunch box/bag and will be ready to go at lunch. You can also add container of chopped fruit or add dried fruit or grapes to peanut butter or chicken salad.
Vegetables – Vegetables usually have to cut and/or peeled, but are a great thing thing to munch on at lunch. You can also include vegetable chips such as kale chips. Vegetables can also be added to sandwiches and made into salads. It is a good idea to pack them separately and let your child add the to the sandwich or pour dressing over the salad at lunch to prevent wilting and soggy sandwiches.
What about fat? Some foods naturally contain fat such as meat, eggs, nuts, cheese, and dairy, so your child will probably get enough fat without adding it in. However, many children prefer mayonnaise on a sandwich and salad dressings that contain fat. In general, it is best to get your fat from naturally occurring sources, so ideally you could use avocado mashed with a little lemon to prevent browness or spreads made with yogurt, nut butters or soft cheese. But, a little mayonnaise is ok. Just remember that while fat has gotten a lot of recent press for being healthier than we thought, it is still higher in calories for the same amount than other nutrients, so you don’t want to over do it.
What about sweets and treats? Sugar has no nutritional value and is not needed in the diet. But, lets face it, kids love it. So, adding some healthier treats or regular sweets on occasion is ok. As a rule, I try to make sure the sweet item has at least one good thing going for it. It can include fruit or whole grains, both of which contain fiber and vitamins. Some sweets can also easily include a good bit of dairy such as cheesecake or pudding. So, if you are going to add sugar, make it count as a serving of something good too.
Hope you all have a healthy and delicious lunchtime this school year!