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You sacrificed sleep to get up at the crack of dawn and make your child's lunch. And you expect that your child will eat it. No wonder you're upset when most of it comes back home that afternoon. What is the secret to packing a good lunch that your child actually will eat? "You and your child need to work together as a team," says Jodie Shield, R.D., the mother of three and author of an upcoming book on feeding school age children. "Agree on a lunch that is a combination of healthy foods that you approve of and fun foods that your child will eat. If your child has favorite foods, such as pretzels or squeezable yogurt, go ahead and pack them. If he prefers leftover chicken legs, cold pizza, or single-serve boxes of cereal, send those instead of a more typical lunch."
Shield also recommends occasionally including treat foods like cookies, chips, or bite-size candy bars. "But be sure to pack only a small amount, so that your child doesn't fill up on the treats and skip the rest of his lunch."
It's important to find out what your child liked and didn't like about her lunch, suggests Sandy Nissenberg, R.D., author of Brown Bag Success: Making Healthy Lunches Your Kids Won't Trade. "Think creatively to come up with other foods that she might eat, like pasta or soup. Offer fun foods like fruit or vegetable and cheese kebabs, cream cheese and jelly rolled in a tortilla, or peanut butter with pretzel rods to dunk. As long as your child eats a variety of different foods, it doesn't really matter whether or not they are traditional brown bag items."
To many parents, nutrition is the biggest challenge. Shield complains that lunches from home are getting worse. "Parents pack way too much food. Children in elementary school typically do not have big appetites. They also don't have much time to eat. When you give your child too big a lunch, they may just eat their dessert and chips and then throw the rest of the lunch away." Shield also is seeing more prepackaged lunches, which tend to be high in fat and sugar, and missing several important food groups. "A nutritious lunch should include one small portion from each of the five food groups -- grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and high protein foods like meat, chicken, and tuna, and it should supply no more than one high fat and/or high sugar item like chips, cookies, or candy," advises Shield.
Kids love to trade foods in their lunches. What should you do? Unfortunately, many of the foods children trade for are less nutritious than the foods they trade away. And unless your child's school bans trading, it is difficult for you to control. "Offer to include one treat food to trade away, but discourage your child from trading his entire lunch," says Shield. "If you've packed a lunch with his help, he will be more likely to eat it."
Cafeteria lunches in some schools have come a long way since the days of menus packed with sloppy Joes and mystery meats. Martha Kohn, the mother of two children in the Chappaqua (NY) School District, is thrilled with the progress made. "Our cafeteria always offers new foods for kids to try. The cafeteria staff has formed a great partnership with the PTA -- parent volunteers help hand out samples of new foods and tell the staff which foods the children liked and didn't like." Children often need encouragement to try a food that is unfamiliar to them. Involving parents helps the cafeteria staff to make changes to the lunch menu.
Thanks to a federal program that began in 1996, all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program must follow strict nutrition guidelines. School lunches are much lower in fat than they used to be and are required to supply at least one-third of a child's daily requirements for essential vitamins and minerals. So take a closer look when your child brings home the school lunch menu. You'll see more "healthy" foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains. You'll notice that more vegetarian entrees and fewer fried foods. And in a nod to the growing diversity of our population, school lunch menus include many more ethnic entrees than ever before.--Mindy Hermann, R.D.