Packing children's lunches can be stressful. You want healthy foods that taste good and won't spoil by lunchtime, and you worry about your children's and their peers' allergies.
Four-year-old Sophia attends pre-K and loves "grown-up" lunches her mom, Lizz Smoak, makes for her.
"She loves soft tacos and quesadillas," Smoak says. "I use guacamole or hummus as spread, and use seasoned ground turkey or chicken and cheese to fill."
Unlike many of her classmates, Sophia doesn't drink juice with her lunch.
"I stopped sending juice to school and began strictly sending a 16-ounce water bottle dyed with beet juice or fruit puree," notes Smoak.
Teachers compliment Sophia's lunches, which Smoak says aren't tough to make.
"I always cook more for dinner and can turn it into something fun," she says.
A grumbling stomach can be a distraction in the classroom, so make sure your kids eat a nourishing lunch.
"A tummy full of healthy food will do wonders for a child's health and well-being, says children's health advocate Merilee A. Kern. "It can even help them achieve good grades due to more stable blood sugar levels, which increases brain function, including the classroom-critical attention span."
A healthy lunch is also an asset for kids in gym classes and sports activities, because it provides "necessary pre-energy and post-recovery fuel for the activities of the day," Kern adds.
Many kids are picky eaters, but you still want them to eat a balanced meal.
"Present the healthy food, don't offer other meals instead, and let the child decide how much or whether they will eat," says Jill Graybill, a registered dietitian and community nutrition educator for Spectrum Health. "Also remember portions these days are huge, so kids who eat only a few bites of certain foods may still be doing OK even though it doesn't look like much food."
You don't necessarily need to worry about how much or how little your child needs of proteins, dairy and carbs. Instead, Graybill recommends using ChooseMyPlate.gov to see portions and servings.
Serve good-for-you lunch options and be willing to find a middle ground as well.
For example, Kern's son will only eat "a healthy tuna fish sandwich with low-fat mayonnaise in a wheat pita if it has about four potato chips placed inside the pocket, too."
It's a good idea to know if your children or their peers have allergies; you don't want your child's lunch being a potential problem. For example, some schools have a nut-free policy while others require kids eating nuts do so at a specific table.
Make sure your children know sharing food isn't always a good idea, since the food could make their friends sick.
Jessica Corwi, also a registered dietitian and community nutrition educator for Spectrum Health, says parents of a child with an allergy must "use due diligence to ensure their own children are knowledgeable about their food allergy and are able to make wise and safe choices throughout the day."
*What to Pack
"I always include a protein item," says Kern. "Especially at school, this will better satiate and give them a feeling of fullness that will last longer."
She also packs a whole-grain carbohydrate like bread, a vegetable such as carrots, and dip and fresh fruit, along with water or a low-fat smoothie.
*Snacks and Treats
Serve fruits or raw veggies for a snack or nuts if your child doesn't eat much meat.
"Cookies, fruit snacks and highly processed crackers should be limited," says Graybill, explaining that too many "treats in lunches can quickly add up to too many unhealthy foods."
Kern says that "many 'dessert' items that can fit into a healthy regimen," such as fat-free pudding or yogurt.
*Healthy Lunch Options
Source: Children's health advocate Merilee A. Kern
--Lean meat. Serve lean meats, like shaved ham or turkey, on whole-grain bread or in a wheat wrap with lettuce, low-fat cheese and low-fat mayonnaise or mustard.
--Healthy PB&J. Use low-fat or low-sodium peanut butter and all-fruit, sugar-free jelly on whole-grain bread.
--Tuna. This fish is full of "oh-so-beneficial omega-3 fatty acids," says Kern, who recommends serving it mixed with low-fat mayonnaise and diced apple in a wheat pita. Add onion if your child likes it.
--BLTs. Even BLTs can be healthy if you layer turkey bacon, lettuce, tomato and fat-free mayonnaise on whole-grain bread or rolled into a pita wrap.
Sides for Lunch:
--Fat-free, sugar-free yogurt or cottage cheese.
--Celery sticks filled with low-fat, low-sodium peanut butter.
--Pre-washed fresh fruit, such as grapes or oranges.
--Dried or dehydrated fruit, like raisins or apricots.
--Roasted or raw almonds, walnuts or peanuts (not oiled or candied).