As parents everywhere can attest, back to school means back to packing lunches, usually for a less-than-enthusiastic audience. Making sure that your kids get the nutrition and brain food they need throughout the day can be a real challenge - especially if your brood includes a finicky eater.
If you're also trying to control your child's weight, going the easy, processed-food route just won't cut it.
So what's a harried parent to do?
A good start: Replace processed foods with similar foods that are lower in fat, nitrites, sodium and other bad-in-excess stuff.
We all know that kids love those pre-packaged, kid-friendly lunches, but they're loaded with fat and sodium. A better option: all-natural, organic, antibiotic- and nitrite-free deli meats, sausages, hot dogs and cheeses such as those made by Applegate Farms of New Jersey, available at most supermarkets.
And while a sandwich can be ho-hum, a wrap, a stuffed pita pocket or an assemble-as-you-go lunch can be fun. Kids love to dip, which makes reduced-fat mozzarella or string-cheese sticks, cut-up veggies, sliced fruit, lunch-meat and cheese roll-ups, and whole-wheat breadsticks all fun items. Pair them with hummus, low-fat salad dressing, peanut butter, yogurt, salsa and the like.
The key is letting kids make choices about their lunch, said Aramark nutritionist Alicia Kent, who oversees lunch programs for thousands of students in 13 New Jersey school districts.
"Get children involved in the decision-making process by giving them choices among healthier options," Kent said. "If they make decisions and help make their lunch, they'll be more excited about eating healthier things."
Kent worries about the increase she sees in Type II diabetes in elementary school children. She said parents need to include nutritionally dense whole grains (no white bread), protein for growth and development, and calcium for growing bones.
"We've replaced regular fried chicken nuggets with whole-wheat-battered baked chicken nuggets, and make pizza with low-fat cheese and a whole-wheat crust," she said. "The kids really don't notice the difference."
Jose Vargas, executive chef at the Mission Grill in Philadelphia, uses a range of strategies to entice his 6-year-old Anasazi to try new foods.
"Variety is the key," said the chef, who was born in Mexico City and recently moved his family to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico. "She likes small servings of a few different choices. It doesn't have to take a lot of time. I prepare small containers/baggies in advance for the week."
A few of the lunch-box fillers he likes: dried fruit, nuts, cut-up fruit, no-sugar-added applesauce, and pretzels. Bagel chips and pretzels are better than potato or corn chips. "And I like to surprise her with a little note or lollipop on some days."
Said Kent: "The best thing a parent can do is model for their children the behavior they want them to exhibit. Make better choices at the grocery store - lean meats, soy-based meat substitutes, seasoned and whole-wheat wraps, vegetable chips, cereal bars - so that the options you give your child are better for them."
Nobody is saying that your kid isn't going to eat junk food. And a little bit of junk food is fine. But by providing your child with a choice of healthful lunch items, you're stacking the deck in his or her favor. Eating patterns developed in childhood tend to be followed throughout life.
By involving kids in choosing and preparing their lunches, you teach them proper portion sizes, how to avoid skipping meals, and that healthful food can really taste good. That's a lesson they'll really appreciate 20 years down the road. *