Brownbagging it: The tasty and nutritious way

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Help your children pack healthful school lunches—that they’ll actually eat.

Your child’s sack lunch may come in a drab, brown bag, but that doesn’t mean it has to be dull.

Bag lunches can be flavorful, varied and—above all—nutritious. Parents and children just need to put some imagination into packing them, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietitian.

A joint effort

Collaborating on lunch gives children a say in what they’ll eat while still giving you the chance to oversee their choices, Jamieson-Petonic says.

As a result, kids end up with a meal they’re likely to eat—not trade or toss.

Start by bringing your child along to the grocery store, Jamieson-Petonic suggests. This allows you both to look at different foods and to do some bargaining.

“You can make compromises right there in the aisle,” she says. “If they want something you’re not crazy about, you can suggest some alternatives.”

For example, kids may go for whole-grain crackers instead of potato chips. Or whole-wheat bread instead of white.

Don’t, however, forbid children the occasional treat, Jamieson-Petonic advises.

“You don’t want to be the food police,” she says. “Eating should be enjoyable—not a battle.”

The occasional soda or trip through the cafeteria line for pizza is probably OK, she says. There’s plenty you can do on most other days of the week to ensure your child is eating well.

Strive for variety

Along with being overly strict, being overly mundane can backfire too, Jamieson-Petonic warns.

“Peanut butter and jelly five days a week isn’t fun,” she says. “You’ve got to keep things interesting.”

Avoid getting in a rut with these pack-your-own menu ideas from the Academy of Nutrition and DieteticsAmerican Heart AssociationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations:

To drink

Try 100 percent fruit drinks as a tasty alternative to soda.

It’s OK to allow the occasional soft drinks, but make them the exception rather than the rule, advises Jamieson-Petonic.

Milk, even chocolate milk, is good because it provides essential nutrients such as protein, calcium and vitamin D. The chocolate variety has less sugar than a juice drink, the academy reports. There’s nothing wrong with water, either.

Main course

Sandwiches made on whole-grain bread provide children with fiber and B vitamins. For even more nutrients, add lettuce, tomatoes and onions.

Use lean meats and/or reduced-fat cheeses. And if you do go for peanut butter and jelly, use natural peanut butter with all-fruit jelly.

Sandwiches getting old, period?

“A whole-wheat pita pocket or tortilla is a nice alternative to bread,” suggests Jamieson-Petonic.

Other suggestions:

  • A green salad.
  • Tuna salad with chopped onions, carrots, peppers and other veggies. Use fat-free or low-fat mayonnaise.
On the side

Include some fresh fruit. It’s a tasty and nutritious source of fiber and vitamins. Buy what’s in season. Apples, oranges, bananas, tangerines, grapes, blueberries, strawberries and pears all go great in a lunch.

For calcium, include low- or fat-free yogurt, a handful of almonds, or low-fat or fat-free string cheese. Some cereal bars also have added calcium.

Try veggies too. Pack some low-fat dip along with raw carrots, celery or broccoli.

Other suggestions:

  • Pack popcorn instead of artificially flavored and colored cheese snacks.
  • Replace potato chips with baked tortilla chips.
For dessert

Instead of candy bars or sweet cookies, try granola bars, graham crackers, fig bars, trail mix, or dried or fresh fruits such as raisins or apricots.

Eating cafeteria style

While packing your own lunches provides more control over what your child is eating, sometimes the cafeteria is a convenient alternative. Just be sure you know what’s available, and give your child advice about which foods to select.

Find out if your child’s school participates in the National School Lunch Program. Participation means schools are paying close attention to children’s daily requirements for calories and nutrients.

Schools in the program may provide fast-food fare such as pizza, tacos and hamburgers, but these items are generally more healthful than their restaurant equivalents, the academy reports.

For example, pizza may be made with reduced-fat cheese and hamburgers with lean beef.

Tell your children they can eat more healthfully by:

  • Ordering burgers without the cheese or mayonnaise.
  • Putting salad dressing on the side.
  • Going easy on baked potato toppings such as cheese and sour cream.
  • Eating bread and rolls without added butter.
  • Not overloading their trays. Just because something’s there doesn’t mean you have to take it.

The bottom line

A good midday meal is vital, according to the academy. It’ll help your child concentrate and learn better and provide needed energy for after-school activities.

Do your part to help children eat well. Not every meal they eat will be perfectly nutritious, but strive to make most of them that way, Jamieson-Petonic advises.


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