Written by: American Heart Association
Eating a balanced diet provides the nutrients kids need for growth and development, and is critical for building healthy bodies, said Jamie Walker, a registered dietitian with Lake Health’s Integrative Medicine department.
“Establishing healthy eating habits at a young age may prevent chronic diseases as kids grow into adults,” she said.
Fueling up with healthy choices is especially important as kids navigate the stress of school.
“Our brains run on carbohydrates and nutrition,” Walker said. “We need those healthy foods to keep our energy up throughout the day.”
Make a plan
Whether the kids are back in the classroom or attending virtual classes, planning for a nutrient-rich lunch is important for supporting learning.
“Kids thrive on a routine, so create a routine for lunch if you are at home,” Walker suggested. “Pack the lunch the night before and have it easy to grab.”
And the more you have a plan, Walker said, the less likely you are to “just grab anything.”
Get kids involved
Getting the kids involved is one way to help build enthusiasm for what’s in their lunch and make it more likely they will eat it. Start at the grocery store, encourage kids to choose a new fruit or vegetable to try or whole-grain bread for sandwiches. Each day (or the night before if it makes mornings less hectic), have kids select something from each food group to pack for that day’s lunch.
Walker recommends starting with produce, colorful, nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables, then move to foods with protein and whole grains.
“Introduce healthy foods and make it a positive experience so they’ll be more likely to choose healthy foods throughout their life,” she said.
Avoid processed foods, such as packaged salty snacks or sweets, which don’t have the nutrition to fuel kids throughout the day, Walker said.
“They’re going to function a lot better on whole foods,” she said. “With sugary foods, they get a temporary sugar boost, but then they can end up feeling sluggish.”
Have fun and be creative.
Check out these budget-friendly, creative ideas to keep kids happy and healthy at lunchtime:
Healthy takes on sandwiches
- PB&J is a classic; change it up by using different breads like whole-wheat tortilla wraps (choose wraps low in saturated fat with no hydrogenated oils) or whole-wheat pita pockets. Or try a peanut butter alternative such as spreads made from sunflower seeds, almonds or cashews.
- Swap for healthier toppings. Instead of cheese or mayo, add avocado or hummus.
- Go beyond lettuce and tomato. Pack in more nutrients with other veggies or even sliced apple or pear.
- Skip the deli. Use leftover grilled or roasted vegetables or chicken instead of your standard lunchmeat.
Raid the leftovers
Redeploying last night’s dinner for lunch is a great way to save time and get a break from sandwiches. Use a thermos to keep foods hot or cold until lunchtime.
- Soups are a great way to pack in more veggies and beans. If you opt for a canned version, check for low-sodium varieties.
- Chili, whether vegetarian or made with lean or extra lean ground chicken, can pack in protein and fiber.
- Leftover pasta is another great option. Opt for whole-grain noodles and flavorful veggie-based sauces such as marinara and pesto.
- Bean casseroles or beans and rice are another option to keep those bellies from rumbling.
Just dip it!
Let’s face it: Kids love to dip, and it’s a great way to get them to add more healthy foods to their diet. Here are some great options for lunch or snack:
- Slice up apple and pear to dip into low-fat plain yogurt or peanut butter.
- Pack a bag of carrot, celery and sweet pepper strips to dip into hummus, fresh salsa or homemade bean dip.
- Include whole-grain crackers or slices of grilled tofu (a soybean product) to dunk into soup. Choose varieties low in sodium and saturated fat and made without hydrogenated oils.