Image: Girl with peanut butter and jelly sandwich
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Load up your kid's lunch box with protein, fiber and healthy fats — such as a PB&J on whole wheat bread — for energy to last the rest of the day.
updated 7/30/2010 3:12:41 PM ET 2010-07-30T19:12:41

Homework? Check. Backpack? Check. A nutritious, delicious, energy-packed, obesity-fighting lunch? Whoops.

Researchers at the University of Texas found that more than half of parents scored an F when packing a lunch. Not enough energy, vitamins, calcium, iron, and zinc, according to the study. Seventy-one percent of parents didn’t include enough fruits and vegetables and 96 percent didn’t supply enough fiber.

So let the lunch ladies take care of them? Not so fast. A separate 2009 study found that only about half of schools that serve lunches under the National School Lunch Program met dietary energy standards and two-thirds of schools didn’t meet the standards for fat and unsaturated fat.

Here’s the solution: Take your kid’s nutrition into your own hands and pack lunch the right way. Follow this advice and your kid will be happy, healthy, and the envy of the lunch table.

Dependable drink
Check the label. Most kids’ drinks contain almost as much sugar per ounce as soft drinks, which could add 3 to 5 extra pounds to your child’s weight by the end of the school year. Instead, pick drinks that have zero or few calories (water, diet drinks), added nutrition (milk, 100 percent juice), or both (tea). Whatever you do, don’t pick anything off this list of the 20 unhealthiest drinks in America. Here are the best choices, in descending order.

  • Water
  • Lightly sweetened iced tea, like Honest Tea
  • Low-fat milk
  • 100 percent juice drinks
  • Low-calorie kids’ drinks, like Minute Maid Fruit Falls and Tropicana Fruit Squeeze

Or make this: Bypass artificial flavors with your own fruit drink, says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of “Healthy Appetite” on the Food Network. Her 6-year-old daughter can vouch for this one: In a blender, puree 1 pint of fresh blueberries with ½ cup of water. Strain the blueberries through a fine mesh strainer and reserve the juice. Fill a bottle ¾ full with water and fill the rest of the bottle with the blueberry juice. Add a few drops of honey and shake until the honey’s dissolved. Save the remaining blueberry juice for use during the rest of the week. Video: Healthy back-to-school lunches

Sturdy anchor
Make your main course your main focus. Swap refined carbohydrates, like white bread or white rice, for whole-wheat varieties. They’ll give your kid more energy and a sharper mind for the rest of the day. Load up on protein, fiber, and healthy fats — they’ll help keep your kid satisfied, stoke his metabolism, and provide important nutrients. (Check out our lunch meat report card.) Go with any of these:

  • Turkey or roast beef and Swiss on wheat bread (sans mayo, but loaded with produce, if you can get away with it)
  • Sliced ham, cheese, and Triscuits
  • PB&J (made on whole wheat bread with a pure-fruit jelly like Smucker’s Simply Fruit)
  • Thermos of hot soup
  • Grilled chicken breast
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Tuna or cubed chicken tossed with light mayo, mustard, celery, and carrot

Or make this: Sneak some fruit into your child’s tuna salad sandwich for added flavor and nutrition. Mix 1 16-oz. can of canned tuna, drained, with 1 small apple, diced, 1 Tbsp mayo. Stuff the mixture into a whole wheat pita pocket, cut in half. “A sweet crunch will make your sandwich taste better. If you don’t have an apple, try a chopped pear,” says Sandra Nissenberg, MS, RD, and author of “The Everything Kids’ Cookbook.”

Sides with substance
Rethink that bag of chips. Only 1 in 4 children consumes the recommended 5 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Pop in those fried potatoes and you’re missing an opportunity to slip some much-needed nutrients back into their diets. (Avoid these 15 “healthy” snacks.) We ranked the best options.

  1. Carrot sticks
  2. Celery sticks
  3. Apple slices with peanut butter
  4. Fruit salad
  5. Banana, pear, peach, or any other whole fruit
  6. Olives
  7. Almonds and raisins
  8. Triscuits
  9. Small bag of pretzel sticks or Goldfish pretzels
  10. Baked! Lay’s

Or make this: Whip up a big batch of healthy trail mix on the weekend and you’ll have an easy side you can tweak during the week. Mix ½ small pretzel sticks, ½ cup raisins, ½ cup peanuts, ½ sunflower seeds, ¼ cup chocolate chips in a large bowl. Store in an airtight container or re-sealable bag. “Trail mix is so versatile you can create your own versions, too,” says Nissenberg. “Try adding some yogurt-covered raisins, dry cereal, fish crackers, chocolate-coated candies, or even popcorn.”

Or this: Bag your own chips, says Krieger. Cut a whole wheat pita into 6 to 8 triangles. Toss with 1 Tbsp of olive oil, a little salt, and, if your kid likes spice, a dusting of ancho chili powder. Bake in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes, or until crisp. Take that, Pringles.

Low-impact treat
You’ve gotta give them something they can brag to their friends about, right? But first, a couple of rules: No trans fats. Keep sugar less than 12 grams. No more than 100 calories. (Check out our list of the 20 healthiest desserts in America.) These options even eke out a few added nutrients.

  • Fruit leather
  • Squeezable yogurt
  • Low-fat, low-sugar chocolate pudding
  • Sugar-free Jell-O
  • Rice Krispies Treats
  • A square of chocolate

Or make this: What kid doesn’t love Rice Krispies Treats? “Here’s the family favorite, updated,” says Krieger. A half-square has 100 calories and even a few grams of protein. Combine ¾ cup chunky natural-style peanut butter and ¾ cup honey in a large pot. Cook over medium-low heat until melted, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 6 cups crispy brown rice cereal and 2/3 cups of chopped dried cherries. Stir until the mixture is sticky. Press into a 9- by 13-inch pan covered with cooking spray. Chill in the refrigerator for 40 minutes. Cut into 15 2½- by 3-inch squares.

© 2009 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction, transmission or display is permitted without the written permissions of Rodale Inc.

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