Once your child starts school, you can't really monitor what she has for lunch. Sure, you pack good things in that paper bag. But does she actually eat those strawberries or trade them for some buttery crackers? Though you can't guarantee that the nourishing foods will get inside of her, you can improve the odds by following a few simple tips:
- Find out what your child really likes. Apples are nutritious, but if your child doesn't like them, she won't eat them -- period. See if alternatives like melon, oranges, kiwis, or persimmons -- all of which have vitamin C and other fortifying substances -- taste good to her.
- Encourage your child to help make her lunch. Children who set their own menus are more likely to eat when lunchtime rolls around. Take your child shopping with you, and let her pick out whatever fresh fruit or vegetable catches her fancy.
- Be flexible. Not everything your child eats has to be packed with vitamins and minerals. Treats are fine. Just make sure you tuck at least two wholesome items into every lunch bag. Along with the main dish, add a piece of fruit, a box of raisins, or a handful of sliced carrots, bell peppers, or other vegetables. Include fruit juice or, better yet, a container of low-fat milk.
Here are half a dozen healthful lunch ideas to inspire you.
Pick a Peck of Pita Pockets
If your child is tired of conventional sandwiches, try zesty do-it-yourself pita pockets. Look for whole wheat pita bread (unless she'll refuse to eat it). For the filling: Chop up half a cup of her favorite veggies -- carrots, celery, cucumbers, or sweet peppers, for instance. Add a small handful of shredded cheese. Then stir it all together with mild salsa. To prevent sogginess, put the filling in a small sealed container and let your child fill her pita pocket at lunchtime.
For another great do-it-yourself meal, pack a whole grain bagel (sliced), a few dollops of light cream cheese, and a plastic spreading knife. If your child has a favorite jam or jelly, you might stir a little into the cream cheese for added flavor. If she likes tomatoes, put a few slices in a sandwich bag so she can lay them over the cream cheese.
Almost all kids love pizza. These mini-pies take only a few minutes to prepare; your child may be able to reheat them in a microwave at lunchtime -- or she may be happy to eat them cold. Slice an English muffin, spread a heaping tablespoon of spaghetti sauce on each piece, and sprinkle each with a tablespoon of cheese. If your kid is a vegetable lover (lucky you), put a few slices of her favorite veggie on top. Bake in the toaster oven until the cheese melts slightly.
Start with your child's favorite yogurt -- vanilla is usually a hit -- then stir in half a cup of low-fat granola or another good-munching cereal. Add a tablespoon or two of raisins, chopped walnuts, peanuts, or sunflower seeds. You can seal it all in a plastic container or leave the yogurt in its carton and pack the mix-ins in a sandwich bag. (Don't forget to slip a spoon into the lunch bag.) For a special weekend lunch at home, serve crunchy yogurt with fresh melon or a sliced banana.
Cool Tuna Casserole
Here's a refreshing pasta dish you can make in advance and seal in single-serving containers. Mix one can of water-packed tuna with about three cups of cooked macaroni. Add a cup of vegetables -- corn or peas, or chopped carrots, celery, or tomatoes -- and gently toss with a little low-fat salad dressing. You can round out the theme with a roll or breadsticks.
The Peanut Butter Classic
Full of protein, folic acid, and magnesium, good old peanut butter is a great lunch choice. Choose a brand without added hydrogenated fats, which are often used to prevent separation. If your child has a favorite jam or jelly, spread it on. For a fresh taste, try adding thin slices of apple or banana, or a scattering of raisins. Note: check with your school to see if nuts and peanut butter is allowed: food allergies have led some schools and camps to ask parents not to forego the nuts.
Roberta Larson Duyuff, MS, RD, CFCS, The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Chronimed Publishing.
American Medical Association, Good Food That's Good For You: Good Nutrition at Every Age
American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org. Nutrition. http://www.healthychildren.org/english/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/default.aspx