It’s that time of year when you’re challenged to find ways to get your child or teen to actually eat their lunch and snacks. If your goal is healthy and tasty, then I’ve got a slew of ideas and tips to help make this the year my child actually likes and eats what I send to school.
Ask your child to participate in selecting food items. Take him to the supermarket before school begins and do some taste-testing in the produce area. Go beyond carrots, cucumbers and apples and let him taste a variety of different fruits and vegetables. Managers in that section of the supermarket will often let you cut open or try items for free. Beware fruit pouches – many have added sugars and fruit juice. Take your child down the aisles and acquaint him with new nut butters (almond, cashew, soy) and find out if your supermarket lets you grind nuts fresh (Whole Foods does) which means no added oils or sugar. Explore the bread aisle and look for high protein or 100% whole grain selections and let him dissect the labels a bit to evaluate added sugars and other artificial ingredients. Do the same with yogurts and other popular foods you’d like him to try. If you involve your child in decision, he will be more likely to embrace new choices.
Decide on lunch and snack choices the night before. This allows your child to weigh in on what he’ll be eating, and the effort will likely shave some time off your morning, since some of the choices can be packed ahead of time. Let kids help to prepare or pack lunch and snacks items if they’re willing. Homemade trail mix, cut up fruit and vegetables, dips, dinner leftovers, baked crackers, can all be put in bags or containers ahead of time so they can be quickly grabbed the next morning. You may also avoid arguments since decisions were made ahead of time.
Aim for nutritious choices. Include a protein in each meal and snack. Choose high fiber, whole grain breads, crackers and cereals. Make sure yogurts have little or no added sugar. Fruit and vegetables should also feature prominently in your child’s school lunch and snacks. If you do want to include nutrition bars, be clear on appropriate calories and don’t be lured by health halos. Many have added sugars, oils, and heavy calorie loads. Beverage choices should be limited to water, fat free milk or nut milks which you can now find in single-serve containers.
Here’s a list of snack ideas:
- Baked sweet potato fries with yogurt dip
- Edamame beans in the shell
- Fruit with a small individual packet of nut butter
- Homemade mini muffins made with whole grain flour and shredded zucchini, berries and nuts or seeds
- Cucumber “boats” filled with yogurt (mixed with spices)
- Hummus and baked pita chips
- Homemade trail mix (cereal/seeds and nuts/dried berries/sprinkle of semi-sweet chocolate chips)
- A few of whole grain, baked crackers, apple wedges and small wedge of low fat cheese
- Protein-based nutrition bar that’s low in added sugar and about 150 calories
- Air-popped popcorn mixed with almonds
- Bean dip and cut up vegetables
- Low fat string cheese and cut up fresh fruit
- Low fat pudding and pistachio nuts
- Unsweetened apple sauce (apples and water) and baked garbanzo beans
Snacks that are not good choices because they tend to be high in added sugars/highly processed:
- 100 calorie cookie packs
- Granola, cereal bars
- Sweetened yogurts
- Regular and baked chips and processed crackers (exemptions include baked, 100% whole grain, high fiber crackers)
Here are some lunch ideas:
- Layer chopped and sliced veggies with thin layers of hummus, tuna, or slices of hard-boiled eggs in an unbreakable, sealed container.
- Leftovers like grilled chicken and brown rice, turkey meatballs and whole grain pasta, salmon or veggie burgers and beans can all be packed in an unperishable, small container. Mix flaked tuna, quinoa or black rice, and sautéed veggies for another healthy, tasty recipe. Left-overs from last night’s stir fry is another option. Dinner can work for lunch* A tofu scramble made the night before with eggs, small cubes of tofu, vegetables and spices will also work well for lunch the next day.
- Take a low carb, low calorie wrap, and add a thin layer of mustard, salsa, or tahini, plus vegetables (fresh or sautéed), and a protein choice like beans.
- A yogurt parfait made with Greek low fat yogurt, nuts or seeds (almonds, walnuts, roasted soy nuts, pumpkin seeds) fruit and high fiber cereal layers in an small, large neck thermos, is a light, healthy lunch option.
- Nut butter sandwiches or wraps (you can use healthy waffles too) with added berries is another great option.
- Whole grain, broad noodles (made the night before and chilled) can be mixed with cinnamon and cottage cheese.
- A frittata made with eggs, sweet potato cubes, greens and other cubed vegetables can be prepared ahead of time and a slice or section is perfect for a school lunch.
- Two small corn tortillas with salsa, shredded low fat cheese and soybeans is a great version of portable pizza.
- Low fat, low sodium turkey slices rolled with peppers and hummus dip
Note: Remember that introducing healthier versions of traditional snacks and meals is a process. Pace these introductions and allow your child to participate. It may be worth trying to let other mothers you are friends with know about your efforts. Sharing recipes and making this more of a community decision can help to sell this new approach to your own child.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”