By Katie Mulligan
Schools want parents to think they are on board with fighting childhood obesity. They form wellness committees, hold health fairs, and improve the snacks in vending machines—all of which are wonderful improvements to our children’s school environment, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought too, until a mother came into my office last week with the lunch menu from her kids’ school, and what a shock. I had just finished explaining that her six-year-old daughter needs about 1,200 calories a day for adequate growth, and the school lunch that was highlighted in the “Nutrition Corner” of the menu had 746 calories! 746 calories in a single meal provides that child with 62 percent of her daily calorie needs, and she still needs to eat breakfast, snacks, and dinner. No wonder we are facing a childhood obesity epidemic.
So, what can you do, as a parent, to make sure your child doesn’t become a statistic? Prepare their lunch at home because the less you rely on school lunches to nourish your children, the better off they will be. Brown-bagging it, for children and parents alike, is the best way to ensure a nutritious and light lunch, and putting together a well-balanced lunch takes just a little bit of know-how. Ideally, every meal you serve your children should include at least three different food groups. You can choose from grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and meat and beans to pull together a balanced and calorically appropriate lunch for your children.
Follow these tips to ensure a healthy, kid-friendly brown-bag lunch:
• Choose three to four different food groups to pack, and make one of them a fruit or vegetable.
• Pack foods that add up to approximately 350 to 400 calories (depending on the age of your child) Use MyPyramid to help personalize an eating plan for your child’s based on their age, height and activity level.
• Make the grain a whole grain on most days of the week (see list of grains below).
• Serve child-size portions. Children’s bellies are much smaller than adults’, so keep that in mind when packing lunches. Half a turkey sandwich with cheese, an apple, and four graham sticks is an appropriate portion size for a six-year-old.
• Packable food ideas:
• Grains: whole-grain crackers, popcorn, baked tortilla chips, whole-grain graham crackers, fig bars, rice cakes, whole-wheat pita bread, dry cereal.
• Vegetables: baby carrots, celery with peanut butter, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes.
• Fruits: whole, sliced, or canned fruit (packed in natural fruit juice instead of sugar-laden “heavy syrup”), 100 percent fruit leather, 100 percent fruit juice, raisins, dried apricots.
• Dairy: cheese sticks, yogurt, low-fat milk, cottage cheese.
• Meat and Beans: individual hummus packs, celery with peanut butter, almonds, deli slices, soy nuts, cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs.
• Include an ice pack to ensure that cold items remain cold.
Your children are active and growing, and they need enough food to get them through their school day. If they are hungry when they get home from school, that’s a good thing! They are supposed to be hungry; it’s been a long time since their last meal and they’re ready for a snack. However, if they’re hungry just one hour after their lunch, that’s not okay, but before you add a snack made from high-fructose corn syrup, take a moment to reassess what’s in the lunch bag. Does it have any protein or is it all carbohydrates? Even if you’ve made a point to include healthy carbohydrates, you need to add protein and fat for staying power. I suggest cheese sticks, hummus, peanut butter, deli slices, almonds, or hard-boiled eggs, just to name a few. To find more information about the nutritional needs of your young child log onto www.mypryamid.gov.
Katie Mulligan is a registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics. Through her practice, Nurturing Nutrition, Katie provides individualized nutrition counseling to children (ages birth to 18) and their families.