Healthy lunches critical to health and performance in the classroom
SPRINGFIELD – “Lunch plays a critical role in a child’s overall health and school performance. When children skip lunch, they are likely to have trouble concentrating in the classroom, lack energy for sports, and overeat after-school snacks,” according to Baystate Medical Center registered dietitian Nancy Anderson, MS, RD, CSP, LDN.
As the school year quickly approaches, how can parents ensure kids are fueling up for the second half of their school day?
“As childhood obesity is identified as a major epidemic in our country, it is important not only to pack healthy lunches, but also to be sure that your child is eating them while developing healthy habits. Kids who eat school ‘hot’ lunches are now receiving more fresh fruits and veggies, as well as low-fat dairy and proteins, and whole grains thanks to new governmental regulations for school lunch foods,” Anderson said.
For kids who brown bag their lunch, Anderson suggests including them in the process to minimize the risk of having them waste food or trade it away.
“Empower your kids to make choices within your controlled offerings. Ask them to choose one or two items from each food group that you have available,” she said.
The Baystate dietitian suggests thinking of a rainbow and trying to include an unprocessed food item for the rainbow’s different colors when packing for a wholesome lunch. To help achieve this goal, Anderson said you should always including fruits and veggie options as part of their choices.
“Don’t ask if they want something, but which would they prefer. Ask ‘Do you want a fruit cup or berries, and do you feel like baby carrots or cherry tomatoes?’” Anderson suggested.
“Ask your child to pick the type of bread he or she wants including pita, tortilla wrap, roll, bagel, English muffin, or hot dog bun options. And, when using bread, try different whole grain varieties that help add a little fiber to the meal,” she added.
When it comes to filling the sandwich, Anderson suggests low-fat items. Also, avoid processed meats, which are high in salt and saturated fat, and nitrates. Choose leaner cuts of meat such as turkey breast, roast beef or ham. If bologna is a favorite, try lower-fat versions and limit processed meats to no more than one to two times weekly. Fill it up with lettuce and tomatoes, shredded carrots, onions, sweet red peppers, or with any of their other favorites. Or to make the sandwich look fun and enticing, cut it into different shapes.
Snack foods and desserts are another area for concern when packing a child’s school lunch, and for when they come home from school.
“Kids are usually very hungry after school, and that’s when they are less picky. Have cut-up fruits, veggies, and low fat dips available when they charge into the house,” Anderson said.
She recommends a choice of grapes, oranges or apple slices, pineapple chunks, melon cubes, berries, kiwi wedges, or even packaged fruit cups. For veggies, try baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, or pepper rings. Yogurt and string cheese are healthy, well-accepted snacks, and add needed calcium, vitamin D and protein. Also, the majority of high-fat chips have low-fat alternatives that are still tasty and fun to eat. If potato chips are a must, try baked potato chips or tortilla chips and salsa. Pretzels come in a variety of shapes, are naturally low-fat, and are a better alternative than some snack crackers with more fat.
Beverages, often a source of empty calories, can be an issue with children’s lunches.
“Soda, juice boxes, or even sports drinks should not be a mainstay of their school lunches, since they only provide extra calories and sugar with few nutrients. Water and low-fat milk should be the only beverage choices. No child needs the extra sugar or electrolytes from sports drinks, unless they sweat for at least one hour non-stop. Otherwise, they give only added, unnecessary calories that should be obtained from real fruits. Send them to school with a reusable water bottle filled half-way which you place in the freezer the night before. Top it off with more water in the morning and your child will have cold water ready for lunch,” Anderson said.
“Remember, portion control is key. Kids shouldn’t fill up on snacks first and then not have room for the rest of their meal. They actually prefer smaller bites of a variety of different food groups, anyway, and it makes the lunch more interesting and fun,” she added.
And, don’t wait until the last minute to think about packaging that school lunch, cautioned Anderson.
Last minute choices almost always result in selecting fat-laden, pre-packaged foods, she said.
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