ROBBINSVILLE, NJ -- You've got the kids' backpacks ready with notebooks, pencils and paper, but what's your plan for packing healthy back-to-school lunches?
The American Heart Association recommends packing a healthy lunch at home to ensure that kids get the nutrition they need without all the fat, calories and salt found in convenience foods and many school lunch meals. Too much salt, calories and fat can contribute to long-term health issues like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese; nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among children today, obesity is causing health problems that previously weren't seen until adulthood like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol levels. (Source: 2011 American Heart Association Understanding Childhood Obesity Statistical Sourcebook)
Tips on packing healthy lunches:
"I advise my clients to plan ahead, provide a healthy variety of choices at home and stay aware of what your kids are eating," said Len Saunders, spokesperson for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association and author of Keeping Kids Fit.
When packing a healthy lunch, she suggests choosing from the rainbow of foods in your supermarket's produce department. Include foods that are red (red peppers, apples, and tomatoes), orange (carrots, peaches), green (salad, celery sticks) and choose foods from the different food groups.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded in 2005 with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, suggests including one serving of vegetables or salad and one serving of fruit (fresh, canned or dried all count); one serving of a low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy item such as a low-fat cheese stick, a yogurt cup, or some cottage cheese; plus one serving of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, peanut butter, beans or another protein source.
Pack healthy drinks such as water, low-fat milk or 100% juice with no added sugar. Beverages boxes frozen the night before can keep a lunchbox cool until lunchtime. Cut out the soda and energy drinks. These are filled with sugar, empty calories and provide little or no nutrition.
Sandwiches can be made on whole wheat bread, pita, wraps or flatbreads. Traditional luncheon meats are high in fat and sodium. When choosing luncheon meats, pick lean meats like turkey, ham or leftover chicken breast. Use reduced fat mayo or salad dressing or mustard to dress a sandwich and top with mixed greens or spinach for extra nutrients.
Not the same old sandwich
Pack hummus with fresh veggies and whole wheat pita triangles or flatbreads for dipping. Hummus is a good low-fat protein source and is high in iron and vitamin C. Or try low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese with carrots, cherry tomatoes, fresh berries, or melon for a calcium-rich, high-protein lunch.
Salads topped with lean protein like hard-boiled eggs, beans or chicken are a great alternative to sandwiches and they help get kids on track with their daily vegetable servings. In a hurry? Buy bags of lettuce or precut carrots or make extra salad for dinner then pack the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Didn't pack a lunch? There are many options to choose from in the lunch line at school, some of them are healthier than others. Encourage kids to choose fruits and vegetables instead of French fries or chips and ask for grilled meat instead of fried.
"Check the school lunch menu and choose a healthier day for your kids to buy lunch," said Mr. Saunders.
Hungry after school?
When it comes to after school snacks, think energy, not fatty, high-calorie. Try baked potato or corn chips instead of fried. Keep a variety of salt-free nuts on hand for a high protein, essential fatty acid snack - but watch the portions. One-quarter cup of these calorie nuts is a serving.
"Focus on fruit and vegetables. Cut them up for greater acceptance. Have plain or with yogurt, hummus or dip," suggested Mr. Saunders.
Stick to low-fat or light yogurt instead of the full calorie varieties targeted at children. To avoid artificial sweeteners, try fat-free plain yogurt mixed with fresh fruit.
Cereal is not just for breakfast. High-fiber, low sugar cereals are fortified with vitamins and nutrients. Pour a serving size and add low-fat or skim milk for a satisfying snack that most kids can get for themselves.
Not all granola bars are created equal. Choose whole grain granola bars that are low in fat and sugar - take a look at the food label and choose the ones that contain less than 1g of saturated fat per serving and are no more than 35% sugar by weight. Make sure there's at least 5 grams of protein.
Shop your local health store for pre-packaged snacks that are high in fiber and low in fat, sugar and calories.
For more information and recipes, visit the American Heart Association at ww.heart.org/healthierkids.
Back to school lunchbox strategies:
- Get lunch ready right after dinner when you're in the kitchen or the night before.
- Pack leftover dinners in lunch-size containers.
- Keep dressings on the side to prevent soggy lunches.
- Freeze healthy drinks to keep your lunch cool.
- Rinse and pack fruit & veggies in snack bags on Sunday night, so they're ready to go all week long.
- If you're buying convenience lunches or snacks, look for those with fewer than 100 calories and the least amount of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
- Kids eat more fruit when it's already cut up. Try oranges and Ginger Gold or Cortland apples since they're slow to brown.
Watch your portions:Size matters. Portion size has a lot to do with why our kids are gaining weight. Because there's too much of everything on their plates, our kids are getting far more calories than they need daily. To start "Operation Portion Control," you need to know how big a portion size really is. You may be surprised to learn these are serving sizes:
- 1 slice of bread
- ½ cup rice or pasta (cooked)
- 1 small piece of fruit (super-large apples are 2+ servings)
- 1 wedge of melon
- 1/2 cup fruit juice
- 1 cup milk or yogurt
- 2 oz. cheese (about the size of a domino)
- 2-3 oz. meat, poultry or fish (this is about the size of a deck of cards)
Mr. Saunders warns that most servings are well over the standard portion size, so we're all getting extra calories we don't need. But with a little effort, we can take control. Cutting down the helpings will cut down the waistlines.