Exploring healthy alternatives for school lunches

By Nora Heston;           

School lunches have come under fire in recent years for being unhealthy. Whether they are high in fat, carbohydrate-heavy or full of preservatives, the bottom line is some of the options your school is serving up may not be the best for your child.

If you have the time and the resources, packing your child’s lunch may be a better way to avoid the fatty, less nutritious meals being offered at school, but how can you pack a well-balanced brown bag lunch that your kids will actually eat?

Getting creative with nutritious alternatives

Look beyond the obvious. Pre-packaged lunch snacks are not always the best place to turn for healthy lunch bag fillers. Instead, try making your own “snack packs” with reusable mini sandwich bags and nutritious items from your local grocery store.

Fruits and veggies make excellent midday snacks, and the best part is – most kids enjoy at least some of the options your grocery store offers. Find your kid’s favorite and pack them in their lunch. If they have a few favorites, try alternating them throughout the week to keep things fresh. Items like veggie chips are gaining popularity, too – a great alternative to the usual bag of salty, greasy potato chips.

Browse the health food aisle to come up with other lunch bag stuffers, such as wheat crackers, baked chips or pretzel sticks. Even popcorn that isn’t overly buttered and salted is a healthy alternative to most salty snacks.

Some nuts are even tasty to kids. Find out if your kid likes, and can safely eat, peanuts, pistachios, cashews or other kid-friendly items. These nut options may be some of the tastiest for kids and will get them the protein and other healthy ingredients they need to stay full and energized throughout the day.

Next, the anchor. Get your kids the protein they need with a sandwich they won’t refuse. Chicken is a food that tastes good both hot and cold, so a grilled chicken sandwich packed with fresh produce and healthy fats, like avocado, can be a lifesaver for their lunch pail (Not to mention healthier than the average packaged lunchmeat) Don’t have a chicken-lover on your hands? Make a PB&J with all-natural peanut butter and a preservative-free jelly. If you have the time, you can even whip up your own creations like egg or tuna salad with low-fat or homemade mayonnaise. When all else fails, opt for organic lunchmeat over the preservative-packed brands). Don’t forget to throw a few icepacks in if the food needs to stay slightly chilled.

Sandwiches can get boring so look to other options to spice up a lunch. Fun, colorful salads can be dressed up, or down, for kids – when an item looks appealing, they are more likely to eat it – or use alternative salads like fruit salad, pasta salad or your own salad creations packed with proteins to provide them with the boost they need to make it through the day. Check out Parents.com’s recipe section to learn how to make a salad your kids will love.

Don’t forget to throw in a special treat for your child. Take one of their favorite items and make it a specialty once or twice a week. This can be done the same day every week as something to look forward to, or it can be given on days you know your child has a big test or a stressful presentation.

Don’t have time to pack a lunch every morning? Some parents find alternative ways to help their kids eat healthy without the daily chore of packing their lunches for them. Consider asking your child, if he or she is old enough, to make his or her own lunch. Teach them about nutrition and what food groups they should be hitting so they can pack a lunch you would approve of. Require a bag check to make sure they are following protocol. Another alternative is to prepare lunches for the entire week on Sunday night so they can be easily thawed or stored until needed. Mark bags with the day of the week to help your family stay organized.

If school lunches are your only option, talk to your child about how to make healthy choices. Most schools offer some healthful options that beat the usual pizza and French fries that tend to be a lunch line staple. Giving your child the tools he or she needs to create balanced meals will be an invaluable tool for them in the future, helping them make positive food choices not just today, but tomorrow, as well.

Looking to really get creative with your lunches? Check out Real Simple’s guide (http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes) to well-balanced lunch creations all of your child’s friends will be jealous of.