The U.S. Department of Agriculture makes it easier for busy moms who want to make sure their children have a healthy lunch. According to the USDA's 2011 MyPlate initiative, healthy meals should be at least half fruits and vegetables, with the rest being made up of lean protein, whole grains and a small amount of dairy. The MyPlate graphic provides a handy visual aid to getting proper nutrition into your kids.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are good, as are frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Be wary of fruit cups and fruit sauces, such as applesauce. While some are good, convenient and healthful additions to your child's diet, others contain lots of added sugar that kids don't need. Read the labels before you buy these products to decide whether or not to include them in your child's lunches. Fruits and vegetables may also be included in other convenience foods, such as frozen meals. Read these packages as well to check for excessive sodium levels. The USDA recommends that kids and adults eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day -- which is approximately one teaspoon.
Lean protein sources such as chicken, beef, pork, seitan and legume products including tofu are a healthy part of your child's lunches. Serve fried and battered proteins sparingly, such as fried chicken -- including nuggets -- and fish sticks. Although kids love them, they're not really lean proteins once they've been battered and fried. Excessive consumption of fatty proteins poses serious risks to your child's health. Baked battered proteins are healthier than those that are fried, but still introduce added fat to your child's diet. Peanuts are part of the legume family, and are packed with protein. Peanut butter is a healthy children's favorite, as long as you choose one that's low in sodium and sugar. Look for dry-roasted peanuts that are low in sodium if you include whole peanuts in your child's lunch. This helps avoid hidden added fat, as peanuts that do not say "dry roasted" on the package are usually deep fried.
The USDA recommends that grain products in your child's diet be whole grains. Choose whole grain breads, brown rice and whole grain pasta products as the healthiest items for your child's lunch. Read ingredient labels carefully. Only buy packages that say 100 percent whole grain. As of July 2011, packages can legally say "whole grain" as long as they contain some whole grain content -- even if the majority of the product does not contain any whole grain ingredients. The Whole Grains Council's "Identifying Whole Grain Products" page has more information to help you decipher package wording.
Dairy products are valuable sources of calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients in your child's lunch. The USDA defines dairy products as those containing calcium, including calcium-fortified soy milk products. Be careful when you choose milk products for your kids. Flavored milks, such as chocolate and strawberry, often contain as much total sugar as a can of soda -- something that isn't a healthy part of your child's diet. Choose low-fat dairy products when possible to meet USDA healthy diet guidelines.