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I confess, I'm a pushover when it comes to forking over money for Friday pizza lunches at my children's school -- packing brown bags can be a huge time drain. But even as the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program, strives to improve the nutrition of school menus, the average elementary-school lunch contains roughly 33 percent calories from fat.
This high-fat fare can increase a child's risk for becoming overweight, a problem three times as many children ages 6 to 11 face than 30 years ago. "Packing a healthy lunch for your child is a definite start toward combating obesity," says Pat Vasconcellos, a Boston-area spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Where to start? Every child needs 16 grams of protein (two slices deli meat with one serving string cheese or half a can of tuna); two servings of a fruit or vegetable (one small piece of fruit and a palm-size serving of carrots or celery); two grain servings (two slices of grainy bread, or one whole-wheat pita), and a small amount of fat from meat, nuts, or dairy. "This mix keeps kids well fueled until they get home," says Marilyn Tanner, pediatric study coordinator at Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. "Starch gives them quick energy, protein keeps their blood sugar sustained so they don't get an afternoon lull, and the fat will keep them feeling satiated."
Follow this game plan for healthy lunches your kids will love.
Mix it up: Kids tire of sandwiches, so give them plenty of variety. Mix strawberries and blueberries into low-fat vanilla yogurt with a serving of whole-grain crackers on the side; spread peanut butter and banana on a low-fat wheat tortilla and roll it up; or make trail mix with a cup of Cheerios, a handful of nuts, and a cup of dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries. Add a piece of string cheese on the side, and you've got a complete lunch.
Keep it safe: Keep foods from spoiling by freezing a water bottle and popping it in with the lunch, suggests Tanner. "By the time your child is ready to eat, the ice will be almost melted, and the lunch will still be cold."
Make it fun: For young ones, use cookie cutters to create fun shapes out of a sandwich. Or spread veggie cream cheese and turkey on a low-fat tortilla, then cut it into sushi-roll-size bites. Remember that fun doesn't have to come in the form of food. Try slipping a few stickers or a little "I love you" note into the lunchbox, and that same old cheese sandwich becomes much more palatable.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, September 2004.