Eating well


School lunches that aren't boring-or bad for them

By Bev Bennett

With school on the horizon, it's time to start thinking about brown-bag lunches. For a "no-trade" lunch, combine one part nutritious ingredients-the less obvious the better-and one part coolness that captures some fad designed to drive other kids wild.

The good news is that you don't have to succumb to high-fat processed meats, artificially flavored beverages or sugary snacks to assure that your child will eat the lunch you pack. You can include ingredients that are nourishing, popular and easy to prepare, even if you're barely awake.

In fact, you may find that children are agreeable to some pretty surprising choices.

Let me share an example: Every day I pack a fistful of frosted Mini-Wheats or Oat Squares in my daughter's lunch-imagination not being my strong suit at 6 a.m. After doing this for years with no response, my daughter recently informed me she needed more cereal. Her friends clamored for it and she wanted more to pass around.

High-fiber breakfast cereal. Who'd have thought it?

Need inspiration?

To start, plan a bag lunch as you would any meal, including a grain, such as bread, protein food, fruit, vegetable and dairy food, says Dr. Rallie McAllister, mother of three, near Bristol, Tenn.

"That's a good template, but don't think you have to offer these foods in traditional forms," says McAllister, author of Healthy Lunchbox (LifeLine Press, 2003).

Think outside the lunch box. Instead of sliced bread, prepare sandwiches using pita pockets or bagels, says Betsy Hjelmgren, a clinical dietitian at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Or, wrap a filling in a corn or flour tortilla. Layer cream cheese and fruit spread between two toaster waffles.

Assuring that your child has enough protein probably won't be a problem, Hjelmgren says. Select protein foods that are low in fat, such as lean turkey, ham or tuna salad.

Make food playful. Package diced turkey breast or reduced-fat ham, reduced-fat cheese cubes and cherry tomatoes into separate foil packets. Add toothpicks or skewers and let your children assemble kabobs. For younger children, cut out favorite shapes from meat or cheese slices using a cookie cutter.

Dairy foods are easy to include in school lunches, says Hjelmgren. Many schools sell plain or chocolate milk. You can also add yogurt or a yogurt beverage or cheese sticks to a lunch box.

Getting the family to eat enough fruits and vegetables is tough enough at home. Finding ways to encourage children to eat produce at school requires more creativity.

Look in your supermarket's produce section for carrot or celery sticks packed with dressing or pick up trimmed vegetables and dressing in supermarket salad bars. Health food supermarkets stock dehydrated corn and peas that have the crunch of chips, but the nutrients of vegetables. Look for the cartons in produce departments.

Don't limit your fruit selection to apples, oranges and bananas, says Hjelmgren.

Depending on the season, vary the offerings with strawberries, grapes, peaches, plums or sliced watermelon or mangos. Again, shop for diced fruit at your supermarket's salad bar. You can even keep the fruit in the disposable salad bar container for your child's lunch, says McAllister.

Dessert such as low-fat pudding, fruit roll-ups or calcium-fortified graham crackers can also add nutrients to the meal. But keep the portions small says Hjelmgren.


Alphabet Lunch This lunch, suggested in McAllister's book, is great fun for 5- to 7-year-olds. Select foods that start with the same letter of the alphabet. Include a small prize, such as a pencil or eraser, for your child to open after he or she guesses the letter that inspired the foods. 1 pizza made using half an English muffin topped with pizza sauce and cheese (see note) 1 ounce bag pretzels 1 small peach or plum 1 small red bell pepper, cut into strips 1 small carton low-fat pudding Note: If your child won't eat cold pizza, substitute a sandwich of peanut butter and peach fruit spread.

Hint: You can also pack a lunch from the "Bs" using bean dip, bagel chips, broccoli florets with dressing and a banana, or try the "Cs" including chicken, carrots, cheese and dried cranberries, or how about the "Ts" for tuna or turkey, taco shells, tomatoes and fat-free tortilla chips.

Bev Bennett is the mother of two and the author of 30-Minute Meals for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2003).

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