By Jessie Funchion, MS, RD, LDN
Back to School…
It’s that time of year! Summer is practically over and school is back in session. A healthy lunch can be tricky with kids, so here are some ideas to get you started.
First option – school food. While cafeteria food rarely gets a great rap, these days school lunches are strictly regulated and actually must require a specific combination of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and dairy in order to qualify for federal reimbursement. So, while they may not be the tastiest options, school provided lunches are relatively well balanced and nutritious.
Second option – packed lunch. Couple things to keep in mind…
- Think Food Groups. MyPlate is the latest food graphic published by the USDA, and can make a great guide for parents as they pack lunches. Try to include at least 3 of the 5 food groups at each meal.
- Pack at least one fruit or vegetable.
- Keep it simple. School lunches are not the time to get adventurous and introduce a new food to your child. Try to pack mostly foods you know they will like, and maybe one riskier pick.
Here are a few ideas…
1) Healthier PB&J – Instead of spreading sugar-packed jam or jelly, try mashing fresh berries or slicing banana onto the nut butter instead. If allergies are a concern, sunbutter is a safe nut free option. Whole grain bread has more fiber than white bread, which will make it more filling.
2) Quesadillas – Choose whole-wheat tortillas, low fat cheese, and a protein source like black beans or grilled chicken. Bonus points for sneaking in some veggies! Kids love hand-held food, and quesadillas hold up relatively well overnight.
3) Veggies and Dip – If veggies are a tough sell, try packing a dip or spread such as hummus, salsa or yogurt-based dressing. These dips provide flavor without a ton of extra fat or salt.
4) Skewers – The options are endless here. A classic combination is tomato, mozzarella and cucumber, but you could make skewers with chicken, tofu, and any fruit or vegetable your child likes.
5) Pasta salad – Grain based salads hold up well in a cooler, and can be eaten chilled or at room temperature. Pick a pasta shape your kid will like, and mix in vegetables and protein source like chickpeas, chicken or cheese.
6) See our Pinterest page for more dietitian-approved ideas.
If some of these seem a little adventurous, parents may find it helpful to get kids involved with the packing process. While this will take a little extra time at first, kids are more likely to try a food if they’ve picked it out themselves or even helped prepare it. Kid friendly tasks include mashing berries, ripping up lettuce or spinach leaves, sticking fruit on a skewer, or stirring dressing into a pasta salad. Picky kids often require repeated exposure to food before trying it, upwards of 30 times! So we encourage parents to be patient, continue offering new foods, and get their little ones involved with the process.