What’s for Lunch?

As children go back to school, it is time again to think about school lunches.

Good eating habits are the foundation for the rest of your child’s life. A child’s body needs calcium and other vital nutrients to grow and develop properly. Many common health problems, such as excess weight, heart disease, and diabetes, begin with poor eating habits acquired early in childhood.

You have the strongest influence over your children while they are very young, because they can only eat and enjoy what you offer them. Start teaching your children about food while they are toddlers, explaining why certain foods are good, and involving them in selecting and preparing foods. When children start school you lose some control over their diets, as they eat school lunches and associate with friends. By the age of twelve, it is hard to change a child’s habits. Teenagers, who love to experiment with new things, may abandon some good eating habits, but tend to return to them later in life.     

The grocery store is full of convenient processed foods packaged to appeal to children. It is tempting to buy items that you can just pop into your child’s lunch bag when you are in a hurry. Unfortunately, sodium, sugars, fats, and colorings are added to these foods to make them look and taste good. Read the labels carefully. Any food in which more than 35 percent of the calories are from fat is not a good choice. The effects of artificial sweeteners on the body are still unknown, and some of the additives in processed foods may aggravate asthma or allergies. Be selective and avoid relying too much on pre-packaged foods. 

Every day a child should eat:

  • Five servings of fruits or vegetables. This means offering a fruit or vegetable almost every time the child eats a meal or a snack. The fruit you put in your children’s lunches is more appealing when you cut it into convenient portions. Sliced apples, pears, peaches and bananas will not turn brown if you dip the pieces in a cup of water containing lemon juice or half a teaspoon of salt. Contrary to what food manufacturers would have us believe, a cup of juice is not equivalent to a serving of fruit. The only resemblance is the vitamins with which the juice has been fortified. Blend whole fruit with some ice and a little water in a blender to make a healthy fruit smoothie. Toss in a few spinach leaves for extra nutrients.
  • Three servings of a calcium-rich food. Calcium is found mainly in dairy foods, beans and green leafy vegetables like broccoli, bok choy, and collard greens. Select dairy products made with skim or low-fat milk. Fortunately, low-fat dairy products are now sold in convenient single-serving packages like yogurt cups and individually-wrapped cheese sticks. Remember, though, that while one cheese stick makes a great snack, four cheese sticks make a terrible meal.
  • Make sandwiches with whole grain bread or substitute a pita or whole-grain wrap.
  • Expand your lunch options with an insulated lunch bag, thermos, cold packs, and tightly-sealed plastic containers. The food will be fresher and safer, and you can pack options like soups, warm leftovers, and salads (with a small container of salad dressing on the side.)  

I have visited the school during lunchtime and seen what was on the children’s lunch trays. If you do not have time to pack a healthy lunch every day, try to educate your children to select foods that contain proteins or vegetables. Discuss the choices on school lunch menus with your child. Even a very young child can understand that “a protein comes from an animal” and “a vegetable grows outside.” When you know that your child ate fried chicken and macaroni for lunch, balance it with a snack of fresh fruit and plenty of vegetables in the evening meal. He or she has already had enough carbs and fat for the day. 

Here are some more tips for balancing your child’s diet:

  • Anticipate when your child will be hungry and have a healthy snack waiting.  
  • Avoid mindless eating, such as sitting in front of the television dipping into a family-size bag of potato chips. Buy snack-sized portions, or encourage your child to take an individual serving on a plate or napkin, and ideally, eat it seated at the table.   
  • Build your meals around proteins and vegetables, and sideline the carbohydrates. Many fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates, and a small serving (1/2 cup) of pasta or potatoes is more than enough. 
  • Almost every family has a picky eater. Keep experimenting until you find something healthy your child likes to eat. If it is broccoli, serve broccoli every day. You may be able to sneak some vegetables into a soup or sauce.  Continue to set an example by showing how much you enjoy different foods, and eventually your child’s horizons will expand. Avoid making the dinner table into a battleground if your child has a small appetite. Compromise – ask the child to eat a few mouthfuls of vegetable and protein before serving dessert.  

The extra few minutes here and there to pack a lunch or prepare a healthy snack will bring rewards for decades to come. Your family will be grateful for the time you invested to give them a healthy future.

“What are the problems with processed foods?” WHFoods.com“

Junk Food vs. Healthy Nutrition For Children.”MedicineNet.com

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