Packing school lunches with nutrition

Lanette Kovachi, Corporate Dietician

Even as a mom, with my dietitian-know-how, those healthy, balanced lunches I strive to get my kids to pack slipped a bit at the end of the last school year. The good news for me and other parents is it’s a new school year and a great time to get a fresh new start with those stale, potentially less-than-balanced school lunches. Aiming to include whole grains, quality protein and fruits and or veggies in school lunches (or any meal) is key for the right mix of nutrients and energy to fuel your growing, active child. Luckily there are some easy ways to get those important foods groups packed into school lunches and still keep them delicious, interesting and, most importantly, eaten!

Let’s start with the sandwich, the most popular staple of the boxed lunch:

Start with a Whole Grain base:

Grains are so important for providing the carbohydrate-rich fuel the brain and body needs for classroom learning. Whole grains provide an added boost of nutrients and filling fiber. Choose a bread that lists “whole wheat flour” or another whole grain flour as the first ingredient. Mix it up so your kids don’t get bored. Try different options like a small wrap (some have seasonings added), multigrain flatbread, pita or even a whole grain hamburger roll. Just having a variety and new look to a sandwich can get kids excited about their lunch. Also, if your child is really resistant to the traditional whole grain breads, try white whole grain bread as an alternative.

Choose a protein packed filling:

The right amount of protein and the right kind is so important to provide sustained energy for busy children. Stick to lean deli meats like turkey breast or chicken breast or buy a rotisserie chicken or turkey breast and carve off slices for a hearty sandwich. Limit high saturated fat, salty meats like salami, bologna, and bacon. If those meats are some of your child’s favorites, you can use them as a topping to a leaner meat or for once a week treat. When it comes to cheese, definitely include if your child is a cheese lover, it is a good source of protein and calcium for growing kids. However, since cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, request thinly-sliced pieces from the deli or go for part-skim mozzarella or 2% milk version. Non meat proteins-alternatives like hummus, eggs, and nut/seed butters pack in the protein, healthy fats, and provide a different set of important nutrients. Try to include 1-2 non meat lunches a week. Whatever protein you choose, you should use around 1-2 ounces to keep your child satisfied and energized for the afternoon.

Finally, pile on the veggies:

Adding veggies like salad greens, juicy tomatoes, sliced crisp cucumbers, shredded carrots, avocado or thinly shredded red cabbage can pack on the nutrients and fiber and make the sandwich colorful and crunchy. Sometimes kids have to be eased in to the veggie toppings, so start with one or two favorites. The tricky part is if your kids are like mine, they don’t want a soggy sandwich. Package the veggies separately and have kids “build” their sandwich at lunch for a yummy, fresh sandwich that’s fun to make!

Try these sandwich alternatives:

Most kids are satisfied with the traditional sandwich-based lunch, but they do look forward to a change of scenery in that lunch box. Here are some examples other non-sandwich lunches that also make it easy to get in those key food groups. For these types of meals, investing in 3 and 4 compartment food containers or bento boxes can make them both easy to pack and fun to eat:

Yogurt Parfait: Pack a container of protein-rich vanilla Greek yogurt with portioned out whole grain cereal/granola, berries and/or dried fruit to mix in at lunch time.

Veggie and Cracker Dippers: Try whole grain crackers or pita slices and sliced veggie sticks, served with hummus or peanut butter (or sunflower seed butter if school is nut-free) for dipping.

Fruit and Cheese Platter: Pair sliced apples, grapes, melon, or any favorite fruit with yogurt dip and serve with a 2% milk cheese stick and a whole grain roll.

Chef Salad: This is a great choice especially when there are salad leftovers from supper. If not, precut veggies and lettuce cut down on prep time. Mix in the same proteins used for a sandwich, just chopped. Add fun toppings on the side like dried fruit, mandarin oranges, chick peas, sunflower seeds and whole grain croutons. Serve with your child’s favorite salad dressing on the side (stick to a sensible portion of a few tablespoons).

Let kids have a say but set parameters and educate:

Everyone likes to have a say in what they are eating, especially school age kids…in fact, I’m sure any kid would love a lunch box full of sweet treats. However, even giving choices to children within some set parameters (that includes whole grains, fruit/veg and great protein) can make your kids feel empowered and happy about the lunch they have in front of them. Also, educating children about how the right foods support the body and brain can make them very enthusiastic about trying new types of food. If they have a great base for their lunch, there is room to add some special extras like a small favorite sweet treat or crunchy snack. Have kids help fill out the grocery lists and then making their lunches or helping out. Getting involved in the lunch process is key to understanding and appreciating the food they eat.

The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what type of lunch it is, as long as you guide your child to include a variety of foods that they enjoy. If you include different food groups you can feel good about what they’re eating – and what they are eating will make them feel good.

And of course – we are always ready to help build your kids a nutritious meal when you visit Subway® restaurants. Our Sandwich Artists™ will guide them through the line of choices including whole grains, lean meats and fresh veggies. Kids can pick and choose exactly what they want on their creation; a smart choice for both parents and kids!

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