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Sending your kid off in the morning with a healthy school lunch can be better than school lunches you’ll find in the cafeteria, but getting the right balance of nutrition is key.
Surprisingly, most school lunches made at home are worse than those kids purchase at school. According to a July 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, only 27 percent of the lunches from more than 600 kids surveyed met at least three of the five National School Lunch Program standards.
The good news is that packing lunch doesn’t have to be difficult. Here, learn which foods you should focus on and how much and how to make packing a healthy school lunch a breeze.
Without time to plan healthy school lunches, chances are you’ll resort to PB&J and processed, packaged foods everyday. Making a grocery list and having a list of healthy school lunch ideas will take the guesswork out of school lunch in the morning.
Start with fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which will help to satisfy your kid’s hunger and help him feel fuller longer. When packing your kid’s lunch box, 50 percent should be made up of both fruits and vegetables—not just fruit.
Do your best to “eat the rainbow” and offer a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. If your kid is a picky eater however, pack fruits and vegetables you know he’ll eat. After a few weeks, start to add in small amounts (a teaspoon will do) of new fruits and vegetables you’d like him to try. If you’re consistent, he may eventually come around and they may even become his new favorite foods.
Pick a protein
Protein is important for your kid’s growth and development and meals with protein keep hunger at bay, balance your child’s blood sugar and give her enough energy to keep up at school.
Protein should make up 1/4 of a healthy school lunch but you’ll want to focus on lean, quality protein sources instead of processed foods like deli meats and cheeses or hot dogs.
Try chicken, beef, turkey, beans, edamame, tempeh, eggs, fish and seafood. If you’re worried about the mercury levels in fish, find out which types of fish are safe for your kids.
Choose whole grains
Grains should make up about 1/4 of a healthy school lunch box. When packing whole grains, think about other grains your child will eat that day since 50 percent of grains in his diet should be whole grains.
Whole grains have vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and filling fiber, which are stripped from refined grains. Try whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa or another type of gluten-free grain.
Add calcium-rich foods
The USDA MyPlate recommends milk or sources of dairy with meals because of the calcium they provide. If your kids are dairy-free, or you’re trying to avoid dairy because it’s inflammatory, they can still get plenty of calcium from green leafy vegetables, chia seeds and other calcium-rich foods that aren’t dairy.
Focus on plant-based foods
Studies show plant-based diets are one of the healthiest because they’re high in vitamins and minerals, anti-inflammatory and prevent constipation.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, sweet potatoes and nuts and seeds are all plant-based foods to include in your child’s lunch box.
Include healthy fats
Omega-3 fatty acids are part of a healthy diet and support your child’s brain health and memory.
Salmon and sardines are low in mercury and good sources of both protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Or try olives, a mist of olive oil on salad or vegetables, avocado and nuts and seeds, which are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids too.
Get a bento box
Kids love choices and a reusable bento box is a great way to serve up a variety of foods at lunch time and also ensure that you have healthy portions of all the major food groups.
Packing a cookie with an “I love you!” note makes you and your kid feel happy, but most treats you’ll find in the grocery story are high in sugar, sodium and artificial ingredients, not to mention, kids don’t need them while they’re trying to learn.
If you decide to pack treats, read labels carefully or consider your own homemade healthy versions. Also, re-think what a treat could be. Applesauce, dried fruit or chocolate covered fresh fruit are just as sweet but a bit healthier.
Teaching balance is also a key component of raising kids who are healthy eaters so consider including a treat once a week instead of everyday, for example.