Lunches That Make the Grade

Ideas for packing healthy foods that children won’t want to trade.

For many children, one of the exciting back-to-school rituals is selecting a new lunchbox. For parents, that means choosing midday fare to pack in those lunch-pails. While fresh ideas for healthy and satisfying meals may flow freely at the beginning of the school year, as the weeks pass, it can become easy to slip into a lunchtime rut of daily turkey sandwiches. Local nutritionists and culinary instructors offer ideas designed to serve up lunchbox love all year long.

“Making healthy lunches is just about parents educating themselves on the healthy food options that are available and then teaching their kids to make healthy food choices,” said Mary Murray of Reston-based Teri Cochrane, Beyond Nutrition. “With my own kids, I just kept bad food choices out of the house so they didn’t have those options.”

Trade junk food favorites like potato chips for healthy alternatives like plantain chips, advises Murray. “Plantain chips are actually very good and they’re also good for you and still have the crunch. If kids were to bring some extra to share with their friends, more kids will see that they’re actually delicious.”

“Protein and vegetables are remarkably important, but underrepresented,” said Sara Ducey, professor, Nutrition and Food at Montgomery College. “A lot of carbs or snacks, stuff like chips, end up in children’s lunchboxes because they have a social value for kids who feel like they’re open to being judged.”

There is a social component to lunchbox fare that should not be overlooked, continues Ducey. “Lunches should be exciting and appealing, especially when children are feeling like they might be judged,” she said. “Cutting fruit into larger pieces for example, keeps them from turning brown as quickly. A Granny Smith apple for example is less likely to turn brown than a Red Delicious apple.”

Packing a lunchbox with foods that are hearty and nutrient-dense is a key to maintaining a feeling of satiety throughout the day, advises Ducey. “You want your kids to have a stable blood sugar,” she said. “Beans are good for protein and keeping their blood sugar stable. Try things like white bean hummus, chili and stews and soups that are made with beans.”

Involving children in the process of selecting and preparing the items that go into their lunch boxes is a key to increasing the chances that those healthy items will actually be consumed, advises Terri Carr of Terri's Table, a cooking school in Potomac, Md. “Children love to cook and the desire for cooking classes in this area is tremendous. Carr offers classes on cooking with children.

“Many kids will eat fresh baby carrots, celery and cucumber, which are also hydrating,” added Carr. “Crunchy dried fruit like blueberry, apples and mangos can go in their lunchboxes instead of chips and they’re usually a hit.”

Replacing fruit juice with natural fruit water by soaking fresh fruit in water to add a burst of flavor without added sugar is another option offered by Cochrane’s firm. Stevia or monkfruit can also been added to sweeten the taste without increasing the sugar content.

“When it comes to beverages, children should only have whole milk and water in their lunchboxes,” said Ducey. “Whole milk keeps the child fuller longer. Skim milk actually spikes sugar and they’re full at first, but hungry soon after. And a hungry kid doesn’t learn as well.”

As important as the food that goes into a child’s lunchbox are the containers that hold each dish, suggests Ducey. “Invest in good quality stainless steel containers and utensils rather than plastic,” she said. “Plastic can transmit chemicals into your food, so stainless steel is a good alternative.”

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