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Put a healthy spin on school lunch

October 01, 2013

The start of the school year is a great time to give a second thought to your kids’ lunches.

Many kids rush through breakfast to get to school on time, and participate in after-school activities well into the evening. Having a healthy lunch that combines complex carbohydrates, lean protein, dairy, fruits, and vegetables is the only way they’ll get the energy they need to make it through their busy days.

“When lunch includes the right nutritional balance, it gives kids the energy they need to focus on their afternoon studies and enjoy their after-school activities,” says Jessica Grimes, MD, a family medicine practitioner with Duke Primary Care Wake Forest.

Providing that combination of vitamins and nutrients is easier than it sounds. Start with these tips, which add variety to the tried-and-true school lunch ritual. Give these ideas a try, and soon you’ll quickly be making healthy lunches that will make your children the envy of the school lunch table.

Who says sandwiches need bread? When your child gets bored with the daily sandwich, switch it up. Use whole-wheat waffles, whole grain pita pockets, or rice cakes instead of bread. Try wrapping their favorite chicken salad, cold cuts, and cheese in Bibb or romaine lettuce, which stands up to fillings and adds flavor and crunch to their meal.

Let go of the mayo. If your kid likes guacamole or hummus, spread that on their sandwich instead of mayo. It pumps up the flavor as well as the good fat and protein content.

Jazz up the PBJ. Instead of the ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly, try almond butter, which tastes practically the same but has more vitamin E, iron, and calcium, says Ronald Prucha Jr., MD, a family practitioner at Duke Primary Care Morrisville. Now, replace the jelly with slices of fresh strawberries or bananas, or dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, or pineapple. Sprinkle with shredded unsweetened coconut.

Reinvent the leftovers. If last night’s roasted chicken was a hit, cube it and serve with crackers. Or turn it into chicken salad and serve on whole grain bread or a crusty artisan bakery roll. Shidhaye says her pasta and vegetable dish is such a hit with her two children that she makes a batch on Sundays, and portions it, warmed up, into her kids’ thermoses each morning.

Give them some crunch. Carrots and celery are easy and healthy go-tos for adding crunch to a lunchbox, but if chips are a must, introduce your children to hummus chips, made from chickpea flour, or pita chips. Trail mix packs in a lot of nutrients and vitamins, and is quick and easy to make. It’s also a great way to slip in a treat, says Prucha. Combine chocolate chips or M&Ms, peanuts, bite-sized graham crackers, granola, unsweetened dried fruit, and multigrain pretzels.

Let them know you care. An occasional note from mom or dad, written on a napkin or stuck to the roof of their lunchbox, can go a long way. “It may motivate your child to eat what you made because it makes the experience special,” says Grimes.

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