Back to school brings excitement, some stress, and for a lot of us, a much needed shift back to schedules and routines. Get your kiddos back into the swing of things with these fun, easy, and healthy ideas for back to school lunches and snacks.
We talk a lot about breakfast being the most important meal of the day, but lunch is also critical to a child’s overall health and school performance. Without adequate fuel during the day, kids are more likely to have trouble concentrating, have poor energy, and over-indulge in “empty” calorie snacks. The tricky part is that lunches and snacks need to be nutrition packed but still kid-friendly – a feat much easier said than done. Follow these tips to keep your kids loving their lunches and snacks rather than trading them for something better.
1. Put Your Kiddo in the Chef’s Hat
When kids have a say in the planning and preparation of their meal, they are more likely to eat it. If your kids eat school lunch, review the menu together to help them pick the things they like. School lunch serves up cost-saving, nutrient-rich meals with all the food groups, so it can be a great value and convenient option. If your child is more likely to eat a home-packed meal, try to create a system for developing menus that works for you. Discuss with your kids the key components that should go into every lunch: some protein, a grain, at least one fruit and veggie, a dairy product, and an optional small dessert or snack item.
Make planning fun by creating a checklist for your child to fill in or check off his or her preferences for each food category. Get the whole family involved in meal prep on weekends by forming an assembly line to measure and bag items needed in lunches for the following week. When kids are invested in making the meal happen, they will also be invested in eating it!
2. Go for Gold Star Food Choices
A well-balanced meal should include a variety of foods from all the food groups. So what should you do when your child wants the same lunch for two weeks in a row? Don’t worry too much! As you know, kids can change their minds pretty quickly. Instead of fighting picky eaters, work around dislikes by making a list of alternatives that you could offer instead. For example, a plain old sandwich could be replaced by a colorful and flavorful wrap, lunch box tacos, mini salads with a combination of cheese, nuts and beans, or even pinwheels with lunchmeat and cheese. These alternatives provide the same food groups found in a sandwich, but they are re-vamped in a slightly different, and more fun, way.
Like adults, kids eat with their eyes first. Help your lunch compete with attractive fast food packaging by using a reusable lunch bag or box with favorite cartoons or colors. Be as creative as you can to make foods bright and colorful and use cookie cutters to make fun shapes and sizes.
3. Raise a Smart Snacker
A day of healthy, perfectly balanced meals can be undone quickly by grazing and unplanned snacking. When snacks are timed appropriately between meals, they can actually keep kids energized and help them maintain a healthy weight. When snacking is unplanned and random it can lead to problems with weight, as well as interfere with appetite and disrupt natural hunger and fullness cues. Most children and teens need to eat every three to four hours throughout the day to meet their nutrient needs. This translates into three meals and one to two snacks per day.
The key is consistency. A good rule of thumb is to offer snacks a few hours after one meal ends and about one to two hours before the next meal begins. Provide nutrient-dense foods that could otherwise be lacking in your child’s diet, such as:
- Trail mix with nuts, dried fruit, whole-grain pretzels and low-sugar dry cereal
- Low-fat cheese and pear slices
- Reduced-sodium deli-sliced turkey breast wrapped around apple slices
- Low-fat yogurt, fruit and nuts
- Celery sticks filled with almond butter and sprinkled with dried cranberries and chopped pistachios (aka. Ants on a Log)
- Baked tortilla chips dipped in salsa
- Whole-wheat tortilla with reduced-sodium turkey breast and low-fat cheese heated in the microwave
Remember that the location of the snack is also important. If snacks are eaten at home, designate an “eating-only zone” and keep all snacking in that area. Avoid grazing on foods throughout the house. Studies show that this type of mindless munching leads to overeating and unhealthy weight gain.
Share your fun school lunch ideas with us at Facebook.com/FoodCityGrocery!
Elizabeth Hall, RDN, LDN
Food City Registered Dietitian