Solving the healthy lunch conundrum

September 16, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

My 11-year-old nephew loves salmon, relishes broccoli, devours salad and would gladly dig into strip steak for dinner. His favorite meal is pasta with clams.

My soon-to-be-9-year-old son, on the other hand, has a very limited repertoire. To say he is picky is an understatement. When my brother and his family visited this summer, I checked online to be sure the restaurant they had selected served pizza or chicken tenders. (They did.)

I can only imagine what it would be like to pack my nephew’s school lunch. Quinoa with roasted vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, three-bean salad. We, on the other hand, went through a lunchbox phase when my son would eat only a whole-wheat roll with butter, a cheese stick and 12 grapes.

It can be a challenge to make sure our children eat right when they’re sitting in front of us. Throw the school cafeteria into the mix – without our presence and with the distraction of social friends – and we can be hard-pressed to ensure our children eat a balanced meal.

We are frequently reminded that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but lunch is a close second. Young bodies need fuel to focus on afternoon schoolwork. In fact, studies have shown that students who eat a healthy lunch are more alert and do better in school.

We can’t set up nanny cams at school to monitor what our children are eating, but we can pack nutritional lunches that our children will want to eat. That being said, one of the risks we parents of picky eaters face is that we can easily fall into a rut. If he eats sliced apples one day, I pack them every day. Eventually he gets sick of them, and I’m back to square one in the fruit/vegetable category.

I’m looking for creative ideas to keep things interesting and healthy. A quick Google search reminds me I need to think outside the box – literally. As tempting as pre-packaged lunches from the grocery store are, I know they’re loaded with sodium and preservatives. Once in a while is OK, but there are lots of ideas to try instead:

Pack up last night’s leftovers: meatballs with a whole-grain roll, chicken and rice with shredded vegetables, pasta with sauce, or soup with whole grain crackers are all good options. Play it safe by investing in a thermos to hold warm foods and a reusable ice pack to keep food cold.

For whole grains, offer a variety of choices during the week to avoid the rut. Mix things up by packing pasta, English muffins, whole-wheat sandwich roll, bagels, wraps and dinner leftovers. Whole grain crackers that are high in fiber and low in fat are a good alternative. Pack some sliced cheese and they can make their own little cracker sandwiches.

Try whole-wheat pretzels (be sure “whole wheat flour” is the primary ingredient) for a crunchy, fun snack, and make whole-wheat versions of your child’s favorite muffins or quick bread.

There’s no doubt milk is a readily available dairy option – particularly since children typically can buy it at school. Experts say if your child will only drink chocolate milk, that’s OK. Chocolate milk is better than no milk. Cheese is another good option for calcium and protein – either cheese sticks or cut-up cubes. Or, freeze yogurt overnight and it will thaw in time for lunch.

If your child has a peanut allergy or attends a peanut-free school, introduce some alternatives such as almond butter, sunflower butter, soy nut butter or cream cheese.

Try serving fruits with dips such as yogurt or almond butter, or vegetables with cottage cheese, guacamole, hummus or salsa.

Make a smoothie ahead of time and store it in the freezer. It will defrost enough to enjoy by lunchtime, and it will keep the other items in the lunchbox cool.

Try dried fruit or 100 percent natural “fruit leather” as an alternative to gummy treats or other sweets.

Sneak minced vegetables into tuna or chicken salad, or fill celery sticks with peanut butter or cream cheese.

With a little creativity, the options seem endless. What are your children’s favorite lunch items?

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is mom to two teen-age daughters who like to eat well-balanced meals, and a soon-to-be-9-year-old son who would like to develop a food pyramid that does not include broccoli.

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