Another school year is beginning. For parents who will be packing their children's lunch, it's time to prepare a meal that provides key nutrients, but is still fun to eat, say child nutrition experts.
Packing a healthy lunch is not just a matter of how many cookies you include. There should be a variety of choices that are visually appealing, but not full of empty starches. The biggest mistake parents make is giving up too easily when it comes to offering more nutritious foods, thinking that the child won't like them.
"Children need to be exposed to foods frequently in order to accept them," says Ellie Krieger, registered dietician and author of "Small Changes, Big Results."
Childhood obesity in the United States is an alarming trend. The number of overweight children, ages 6-19, is estimated at 16 percent and continues to rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Along with the weight problem, these kids are experiencing illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes that typically only affected adults, medical experts report.
But even for children who aren't overweight, a healthy lunch is important to refuel for afternoon classes.
"Children can't go for more than 2-3 hours without eating," says Nava Atlas, natural foods expert and cookbook author. "If they don't have a nutritious meal in the middle of the day, it wrecks havoc with their blood sugar levels and affects their ability to do work at school."
Reduce fats and sugar
The idea is to reduce the amount of total fats and sugar a child eats daily, but it's not necessary to completely eliminate them. Allow kids to have some fun foods. A lunchbox of fruits will have a hard time succeeding in a world full of Oreos.
"You want to make sure that your child doesn't trade for the salami sandwich and Oreos that another child has," says Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Weight Management Center.
An average 10-year-old needs 2,000 calories a day, says Marilyn Tanner, registered dietician with the St. Louis Children's Hospital. Dividing by four that leaves three 500-calorie meals and two 250 calorie snacks. If you're watching the child's weight, pack their lunch with low-fat, high-density foods, she says. "Lower-fat meats, lower-fat cheeses are good. Stick with regular peanut butter, it's a healthy fat."
In schools where there are children with peanut allergies, soy butters are a good substitute.
Make sure chips are baked and check labels for trans fats, which are typically listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
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"Find something that says zero grams of trans fat," says Debra Gill, behavioral director of the Pediatric Weight Management program at St. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston, N.J. "The bad thing about trans fats, they not only cause bad cholesterol but they lower good cholesterol."
Ellen Briggs, author of "Are Your Kids Running on Empty?", promotes the three-color rule for children's meals. "Eat at least three or more colors — not man-made colors — at every meal," she says. "If you're eating white, beige and brown, you're not covering the bases."
She recommends bite-sized vegetables like baby carrots or sliced bell peppers with a bean dip or other low-fat dip.
Krieger advises incorporating at least two to three different food groups with about half the lunch made up of fruit or vegetables, including a source of protein — dairy, lean meat or nuts — and some kind of grain, like whole-grain crackers or breads.
Get kids involved
If parents let their children help prepare or shop for foods they like, the young ones are more likely to eat what Mom and Dad give them, say nutrition experts.
"Ask them, 'do you want a peach or pear, grapes or raisins?'" says Tanner. "When they are involved in making the choices, they have a vested interest in it and they'll be more likely to eat it."
It's best to avoid pre-packaged lunches, which are high in sodium and fat, child nutrition experts say.
Instead, parents should make their own versions with low-fat mozzarella cheese sticks or lower-fat meats cut into shapes. Or use pita bread with tomato sauce and cheese so children can make a 'pseudo pizza,' says Tanner.
As for cookies, what is the right amount?
"If it's an overweight child with a propensity for diabetes — zero," says Dr. Stuart Fischer, a New York City nutritionist who worked with low-carb diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins. Fischer recommends tortillas instead of bread and offering yogurt and granola as a dessert.
Whatever you do, experts say it's important to talk about food choices with your child and explain what's behind these decisions.
"If there's one concept you want to make sure of, it's open communication with your child," says Fernstrom. "Your child should always be open to talk to you about food or they'll sneak it."
Is it really better to pack your child's lunch or is it equally OK to let them stand in the cafeteria line? After all, more school lunch programs are offering healthier options.
"A bag lunch is always better" because it gives parents more control over what their children eat, says Fischer. "Plus you get love."
Atlas agrees. "When a child brings their own lunch, it's a connection with home in the middle of the day. "There’s something there that makes them feel good."
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