Healthy Lunches

By Eric Christensen

May 20, 2013 5 min read

In theory, packing a nutritious lunch for your children should be simple. In practice, it can be stressful for many parents. After all, parents have to balance nutritional recommendations against picky eaters, food allergies, school policies and shortened lunchtimes. Sadly, reality often falls short of our imagined ideal. But don't use that as an excuse to give up. Instead, by making small changes, parents can pack more nutritious, and more affordable, lunches that their children will actually eat.

Asha Dornfest, founder of the website Parent Hacks and co-author of "Minimalist Parenting," says, "My first rule of thumb is to not put too much pressure on yourself to make it perfect." Dornfest advises parents to aim high but realize that they can offer nutritious meals during the rest of the day to balance out any midday mistakes.

A good place to start when aiming high is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate dietary guidelines, which you can find at ChooseMyPlate.gov. Dr. Robert Post, associate executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, says MyPlate guidelines "are a simple, powerful visual cue to consumers to think about choosing healthier foods during meal times." Post stresses that the icon is "suggestive of portion sizes, not prescriptive," but he thinks the icon can easily be applied to school lunches. He also notes that ChooseMyPlate.gov contains many tips on healthy meal planning and cooking nutritious meals, including SuperTracker, which helps parents analyze and improve their family's diet.

Once you know what the ideal lunch should look like, Dornfest says parents should focus on "the really big nutritional categories: something with protein, a fruit or a vegetable, something crunchy, maybe an optional treat and milk or water to drink." Use these groupings to standardize lunches. Dornfest says, "If I can come up with two or three lunches that my kids like, and I keep those items on my grocery list, I'm most of the way there. ... A lot of time, kids like to have the same thing over and over again for lunch."

Next, use small tricks to ensure that your children will eat the food you pack for lunch. The best trick, Post and Dornfest agree, is to involve your children in the lunch packing process. "I think the sooner the better," suggests Dornfest. "You'd be surprised what a preschooler can do. I'm not talking about making lunch from start to finish, but giving you ideas about lunch, getting the napkin and putting it in their lunchbox. It's about including them in the process as reasonable." Post adds, "Kids are more likely to enjoy the foods when it's their choice," so he advises taking your children grocery shopping and letting them pick some items for lunch. He also notes that these trips can be a great opportunity for teaching children about nutrition.

Additionally, parents often overlook a common reason children do not eat all of their packed lunch: an inability to open food containers. This is particularly the case with small children whose dexterity is still developing. If a child who is pressed for time at lunch can't open a container, he or she is likely to get frustrated and not eat what's in the container. Dornfest noted on her blog that she practices opening lunch containers with her child before using them.

Finally, many parents want to also an affordable lunch. Many parents save money by purchasing reusable containers instead of single-use plastic bags. Dornfest notes that containers should be easy to clean in addition to easy to open. She adds, "A lot of wasted money is in wasted food." Don't pack food just because it's nutritious if it goes uneaten. Both Dornfest and Post suggest spending some time during the weekend preparing and portioning various snacks. Store them as appropriate, and then you can grab them and go during the week.

Dornfest believes these tips should help reduce decision-making, and automatic lunch packing will be less stressful. Lastly, to make lunch packing even easier, Post says that later this year, the USDA will introduce a kid-focused MyPlate website that he hopes will be a "one-stop shop" for feeding your children nutritious, convenient and inexpensive lunches.

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