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Published on August 23, 2010

Try these great tips for creative school lunches

Planning lunches for kids during the school year can be a trying time for parents since it’s difficult to find that perfect balance of healthy foods and foods that kids will eat.

Amy Bridges, Clinical Nutritionist with the Moses Cone Health System Nutrition and Diabetes Management Center, recommends that students take their lunch whenever possible since parents can have more control over what kids eat each day.

“The best lunches are those that are balanced with lean meat, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains,” Bridges says.

Parents tend to focus on what kinds of healthy food can be packed in lunches. However, often the drinks consumed can be just as unhealthy for kids.

“One of the biggest problems I see among my pediatric patients is an excessive consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages,” Bridges says. “Calories from beverages can be deceiving because, unlike food sources of calories, beverages do not provide satiety or a feeling of fullness. The best option for children or students is to consume water, water flavored with a splash of juice or low-fat milk.”

Another challenge that parents and students face when packing lunches is finding variety in the foods they pack. Students tire of having the same types of food every day, whether it be sandwiches or salads.

Bridges suggests that parents and children work together to create lunches that are both healthy and appetizing.

Here are some suggestions from Bridges on ways to spice up the traditional lunchbox fare of a sandwich and chips with some healthy options:
• Try wraps made with whole-wheat tortillas, containing either lean cold cuts or low-fat cream cheese topped with veggie slices. Even the classic peanut butter and jelly is healthier in a wheat wrap or on wheat bread.
• Single portion-sized cups of unsweetened applesauce or fruit without added sugar can satisfy that sweet tooth.
• Trail mix made with cereals, nuts, pretzels, dried fruit or raisins and a few chocolate morsels provides a crunchier – and healthier – alternative to chips.
• Spread low-fat cheese on whole-wheat crackers.
• Individual serving-sized packages of low-fat yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese or yogurt smoothies provide calcium.
• Include baby carrots, celery sticks, bell pepper strips or apple slices with dips made from hummus, yogurt or low-fat sour cream.
• For a completely different lunch, try mini-burritos made with rice and black beans or refried beans in a tortilla with tomato salsa. These can be heated or eaten cold.
• Baked chips or pretzels are a better choice than high-fat potato chips or cheese snacks.
• Drinks made from water with a splash of cranberry, peach, grape or other fruit juice are healthier than sodas.
• Choose whole-grain mini-bagels topped with low-fat cream cheese vegetable spread.
• Air-popped popcorn flavored with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese makes a great snack.
• Low-fat cheese cubes and seedless grapes make a delicious side dish for sandwiches or wraps.
• Cold strips of grilled chicken with honey mustard dip provide plenty of protein.
• Dried cranberries or cherries are a sweet alternative for kids bored with raisins.
• Try quesadilla slices made with cheese and chicken or vegetables.

Remember food safety when packing lunches. It is easy to forget the importance of refrigerating foods, so purchase an insulated lunch bag or box in which an icepack can be stored to keep food cold during the day.

Also, be sure to clean out reusable lunch bags daily to keep the spread of germs and bacteria to a minimum.

For more information on food safety, visit http://www.homefoodsafety.org/pages/tips/tips/lunchbox.jsp.

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