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How to pack the healthiest school lunch, according to nutritionists

How to pack the healthiest school lunch, according to nutritionists

Parents often pack lunches that are less healthy than what the lunch lady serves in the school cafeteria. This is how nutritionists do it.

Don’t be so quick to judge school lunch: In multiple studies comparing a homemade lunch to the lunch lady’s fare, school meals were deemed healthier than what mom and dad packed. Still, packing lunch is an opportunity to create healthier habits and provide nourishing foods, and meals made in your kitchen put you and your family in control. And through repeated exposure, your home-packed meal teaches your child to enjoy new foods. Beyond that, studies show that establishing healthy eating habits in these early years impacts a person’s food choices later on. That’s why nutritious lunches are key! Here are some tips for packing a healthier school lunch as well as some inspiring recipes to get your school year off to the right start.

If you’re not packing whole grains for your child, you’re missing an important opportunity to provide fiber, magnesium, and other notable nutrients. You’re also missing a chance to help your child expand his or her palette to include these healthy grains. Studies show that home packed meals are often lacking in whole grains, but there’s an easy fix: When packing sandwiches, crackers or pasta, insist on whole grain versions over refined, white ones. If these foods are new to your child, layer them with things he or she already loves. Say your child loves pasta with Parmesan. Swap in whole grain pasta for your ordinary noodles but keep the sauce the same. Or start with a 50/50 approach. This works for sandwiches, too, with one side being white bread and the other being whole wheat. Remember, your goal is to reach 100% whole grain foods before too long.

Do It BETTERDo It BETTERHow to buy bread like a (nutrition) proPack Plenty of ProduceThis may sound obvious but according to science on the subject, it’s where parents often slip up. Try to include ½ cup of both whole fruits and veggies in your child’s lunch box. These foods provide the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and protective plant compounds that growing bodies demand. (While juice may be 100 percent fruit, the goal is to try to encourage whole forms of produce since few kids are missing the mark on juice.)

Gear ShiftGear ShiftBack-to-school lunch gear that makes healthy eating even easierPro tip: Since children love to play with their food, try cutting up fruits and veggies into dipping strips and invite them to try different dips, from sunflower seed or nut butter to hummus, tahini, guacamole, yogurt, Ranch dressing, or something you whip up at home. If time and resources get the best of you, fruit canned in juice and dried fruit are easy options. There are a lot of simple ways to make eating more produce fun and inviting, as you’ll see below.

Though your child might appreciate the cookie and chips you’re tucking in his or her lunch box, these snacks drive up the salt and sugar, which is one reason school meals are often considered more nutritious than home packed lunches. Over time, inclusion of these foods can lead to weight gain, which can have serious health implications as your child grows up. Instead of packing a daily treat, consider packing a snack every so often (say, once a week) or pack healthy, whole grain snacks, like air-popped popcorn more frequently. You can also use non-food party favors to add more flair to lunch boxes: Stickers, note cards with a joke or a loving message, and colorful or character-driven pencils and other school supplies are some to try.

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