Children's dietitian discusses the art of mixing healthy and happy when packing school lunches
Packing a child's lunchbox to include foods that are both healthy and appetizing can prove tricky for parents, particularly those with children who are picky eaters. However, a child's formative years are essential to grooming healthy eating habits and ensuring a youngster's intake of vital nutrients and vitamins. As the back-to-school season approaches, Ashley Cappel, a registered dietitian with the Healthy Lifestyles Center and TEENS program at Children's Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, offers tips on encouraging healthy eating in kids.
What are ways to conceal the essential food groups into something children will eat?
It's important to make lunches fun and a meal that children look forward to eating. Studies show that children are more likely to try a new food if it is paired with a favorite food. For example, pack a favorite dip or add a favorite topping. This way, you can combine two food groups into one. Cut fruits or veggies into shapes that kids look forward to eating. Try freezing smoothies with hidden veggies and allowing them to thaw by lunch time. Add dried fruit or veggies to sandwiches or wraps. Make "mock" sushi rolls by rolling up and cutting a tortilla filled with protein, vegetables and a spread.
What mistakes do parents make in packing their child's lunch?
It is easy to fall into packing several empty-calorie, low-nutrient foods. Chips, granola bars and fruit snacks are often packed, but these foods contain few nutrients and will not fill a student up for more than an hour or two. Remember to pack multiple food groups and provide only one small treat. Otherwise, children will eat these favorite "treat" foods first in their short lunch period and miss out on other nutritious, filling foods, such as proteins and dairy.
What part does lunch play in a child's nutritional intake for the day?
There are only a limited number of opportunities during the day to feed your child nutritious foods. Lunch is an essential time to do so, and should be considered as important as every other meal. Use "MyPlate" as a guide to determine how much of each food group to pack. Try to pack at least three to four food groups. Always include a fruit and/or vegetable, making it half of their meal if possible. A protein, such as meat, nuts or beans, will help keep them fuller longer.
What foods should be avoided in a child's lunch?
Try to avoid packing a lunch high in calorie-dense, low-nutrient foods. These may include foods like chips, low-nutrient granola bars, non-whole wheat crackers, cookies and fruit snacks. Remember to pack filling foods that will keep your child satisfied until the afternoon. Aim for only one type of grain or starch (breads, crackers, etc.) and pack a variety of other nutrient-dense food groups.
What types of treats (desserts) are acceptable for a child's lunch?
There is definitely room for a small treat in a child's lunch, but think miniature size, such as a snack size candy bar, small cookie, or mini cupcake. Other healthier dessert options may include dark chocolate pieces, fruit leather, or homemade black-bean brownies.
What types of drinks are healthy and appealing for a child's lunch?
Water and milk are ideal choices for growing children and teens. While whole fruit is preferred, 100 percent juice can be an acceptable replacement. Remember that no more than 6 ounces of juice is recommended per day. For kids who don't prefer plain water, try buying fruit-infused sparkling water or adding a splash of juice to plain or sparkling water. You can also make your own infused water at home by combining fruit and plain water in a pitcher and chilling overnight. Unsweetened fruit tea is also a healthy replacement. Avoid packing beverages with added sugar and juices.
What food groups are essential as part of a child's overall diet?
Each food group is essential for every child's diet, as each provides different nutrients for healthy development. Fruits and vegetables are often overlooked food groups that are imperative for health. If someone is unable to consume a certain food group, such as dairy, it is important that they find other food sources to compensate for those missing nutrients. For example, one can obtain calcium through green leafy vegetables or non-dairy milks.
What are some common deficiencies in children due to lack of specific nutrients/nutrition?
One common deficiency is Vitamin D, which is important for absorption of calcium and a healthy immune system. It is found in fatty fish and eggs. The best source is the sun exposure or D3 supplementation after consulting with a physician. Another common deficiency is iron, which is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to tissues, muscles and brain. It is essential for immunity and creating energy from food found in meats, nuts, seeds and beans. Lastly, there are calcium deficiencies. Calcium regulates muscle and nerve function, and serves as the building block for bones, teeth and soft tissue. It is found in dairy products as well as broccoli, almonds and beans.
What things should be of concern for parents regarding their child's nutrition?
See each meal as an opportunity to provide your family with a variety of different, healthy foods as well as an opportunity to expose your child to new foods. Many parents make the mistake of limiting the types of foods that are served. Continue to expand your child's food palate by serving different varieties of fruits, veggies, grains and proteins. Remember to keep serving these foods, understanding that it takes multiple exposures of a new food to like the taste. Avoid processed, empty calorie foods as much as possible, choosing foods in their "whole" natural form most often.