Whether you are packing your child’s lunch or giving him or her money for a cafeteria meal, remember that a well-balanced meal will help keep your child’s brain and body healthy. Components of a well-balanced meal include grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy, as opposed to processed foods, which are high in sugar and fat.
Some good examples of these healthy components include wraps made with whole wheat tortillas and lean lunch meats; single-portioned sizes of unsweetened applesauce or fruit; trail mixes made with cereals, nuts, pretzels, dried fruit or raisins; veggies to dip in low-fat ranch dressing; and baked chips or pretzels instead of high-fat potato chips.
Packing a sweet treat isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just about what we choose. Yogurt, unsweetened fruit or homemade baked goods, such as high-fiber fruit muffins or oatmeal raisin cookies, are some healthier alternatives. For beverage options, pack drinks made from water with a splash of 100 percent fruit juice instead of sodas. Excess consumption of sugar-laden beverages can increase the risk for obesity. Another good option is low-fat milk.
There even are studies that show that some foods may enhance brain function. Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids (healthy fats) such as tuna, salmon, walnuts, almonds and flaxseeds, and foods high in antioxidants, such as strawberries and blueberries, have been shown to possibly enhance memory and brain function.
If a child is a picky eater, it can make packing a lunch more challenging. It can help to ask the child what they would like in their lunch, and then you can work on making that healthy. For example, if a child wants a bologna sandwich, chips and cookies, try making a lean turkey sandwich on 100 percent whole wheat bread, pretzels or baked chips, and fruit or low-fat yogurt. This may take some getting used to for the child, but the main components of their meal are there - just tweaked a little bit.
It’s always a great idea to let your child help pack his or her lunch. When children feel like they have a voice in the decision-making process, they often are more receptive to eat the lunch they helped pack. If it is explained to them the reasons behind packing a healthy lunch, this can help establish good eating habits in them and make healthy eating a goal they strive for, too.
For the child who insists on purchasing his or her lunch at school, go over the cafeteria menu with him or her. These are published in the newspaper weekly or can be found on the school systems’ websites. Recommend items that are healthier, but also be willing to let them buy their favorite (not so healthy) food items occasionally, too. Be sure to ask about the availability of food items such as chips, sodas and desserts. These sometimes can be purchased in addition to the meal and can add on a lot of extra fat and sugar. Try to discourage fried foods and aim for a healthy balance of foods. Many school systems now offer a healthy lunch alternative that is lower in calories, fat and sugar.
Don’t make packing healthy lunches a battle at your house. Start small. Pick one area that can use improvement, and start there. For example, if your child does not currently consume whole grains this is a good place to start. Once that change has been implemented, pick something else to change. Don’t try to change everything overnight or you will face some resistance. It’s about taking baby steps to help implement lifelong, healthy eating habits.
Whitney Roberts is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center.