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Back 2 School: What's 4 Lunch?

posted Aug 14, 2015, 5:59 AM by   [ updated Nov 4, 2015, 12:32 PM ]

As a parent, making sure your kids eat well even when they’re at school is a high priority. But as a busy person, you don’t have hours to spend packing your kids’ lunches. We understand your dilemma, and in honor of Kids Eat Right Month, we’re going to share our favorite time-saving tips to help you make sure your kids eat healthy at school.

These days, the National School Lunch Program is a great option for many kids due to improved nutrition standards. Schools must offer foods from each of the 5 food groups at lunch every day, meaning kids have access to at least one serving of fruit, vegetables, grains, meat/meat alternatives, and milk. Kids must pick one choice from at least 3 of these foods groups, including either a fruit or vegetable (or both!) to get the school lunch rate. Milk can only be low fat or fat-free (flavored milk must be fat-free), grains must be at least 51% whole grain, and a variety of vegetables with different nutrient profiles must be served throughout the week. Regulations limit how much sodium, calories, and saturated fat meals can contain and meals must be free of trans fat. With prices often under $3 per lunch, school lunch is a good nutritional bang for your buck. Buying school lunch can also take some of the pressure off for busy families.

However, be aware that if your child purchases a la carte items rather than the set price school lunch, they may not be getting a balanced meal. While so-called “competitive foods” are subject to nutrition standards, students that select a la carte items are not required to make choices from different food groups or select a fruit or vegetable.

If you and your child decide to buy school lunch, review the menu together each week and discuss what foods your child enjoys. After school, ask them which foods they chose and what they liked and didn’t like. Encourage them to choose a wide variety of foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.

If you and your child prefer to pack lunch, you can use a similar “formula” to make sure they’re getting a nutritionally-balanced lunch. Try to include one protein, whole grain, fruit, vegetable, and dairy option in each lunch. You can also occasionally include sweets or snack foods, but limit portions and don’t include them every day.

It’s important to involve kids in packing their lunch. They’ll be more likely to eat a lunch that they had a say in. For younger kids, you can work with them to create a checklist that includes the 5 food groups and your child’s favorites in each category. This makes it easy for you to pack balanced lunches that your child will enjoy. Older kids can pack their own lunches, with guidance from you. Another time saving tip is to bag up items like fruits and veggies on the weekend so that they’re ready to go into weekday lunches.

Make sure lunches include lots of variety: no one wants to eat the same thing day after day. Allow kids to pick out new fruits and veggies at the grocery store and pack them for lunch. Try to include a variety of colors and textures in each lunch. Think beyond sandwiches, and mix it up with whole-grain wraps, cracker sandwiches, salads with protein (e.g. cheese, nuts, or beans) and whole grains (e.g. whole wheat pasta, brown rice, barley, or quinoa), and bread-free sandwiches (e.g. lettuce wraps, lean turkey wrapped around string cheese). We have lots of nutritious salad recipes on our site, and this article also has many creative lunch ideas.

You may want to Invest in an insulated lunch bag, ice packs, and a quality insulated thermos. This ensures food stays safe and opens up a wider variety of options, such as hot soups. Let kids pick out their lunchbox to get them excited about packing their lunch.

If you have a picky eater, consider packing extras to share with friends. This may encourage your picky eater to try new foods since they’ll see their friends enjoying them.

Many of our tips came from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Kids Eat Right series. For more information, check out some of our favorite articles: Making the Grade at Lunchtime, Banishing Brown Bag Boredom, Earn an A in Lunch, and Lunch is in the Bag.