Most parents struggle to empower their kids to make healthy food choices -- and to enjoy them. When cooking at home, you have control over what your family eats, but for school-age children, lunchtime can be a bit of a nutritional wasteland. You hope they don't trade lunches with the kid whose dad packed the conveniently packaged chips and soda the morning mom had an early yoga class. Get your kids involved in planning the best, healthy lunch menus long before you are stuffing their lunch bag.
The Food Plate
In 2011, the USDA revised their nutritional recommendations to resemble your dinner plate, calling it My Plate. The agency recommends reduced portions of food, and at least half the meal to be comprised of vegetables and fruits. A little more than 1/4 of the meal should be grains, with at least half whole grains. A little less than 1/4 of each meal should be meat or protein. In addition, you should have a low-fat dairy addition, oftentimes in the form of milk or yogurt for school-age children.
Proteins and Grains
Protein is the area that trips up most moms. It is sometimes a challenge to avoid the oh-so-convenient, pre-packaged lunchmeat or, even more miraculous, the oh-so-convenient, pre-packaged lunches. Look at lower-sodium and lower-fat choices of lunchmeats, such as turkey. Additional choices for schoolchildren are hard-boiled eggs, veggie burgers, falafels or a mix of nuts -- if there are no children in your child's class with nut allergies. Choose whole grain breads or brown rice to mix in with the protein to round out the plate. If your preparing a healthy sandwich, make it more appealing so your child will actually eat it. Dress it up with your kid's favorite condiments: low-fat mayo, mustard or a light creamy dressing. Younger children especially appreciate sandwiches cut into fun shapes. If you send a rice-veggie-protein mixture, don't forget to include a spoon in your child's lunch bag.
Vegetables and Fruits
If you always serve fruits and vegetables, it's easier to get your kids to see those items as appropriate lunch choices. Most kids love carrot sticks, sugar snap peas and red and yellow bell peppers. Fruits are even easier to offer because their sweet taste resembles dessert. Try mixing vegetables together for different nutrient-rich combinations, and always throw in a new vegetable to try, such as cucumber slices, broccoli or even roasted asparagus tips. With a dip such as hummus or ranch dressing, eating veggies can be fun. Make a modified fruit salad, mixing acidic fruits with berries and your child's other favorites. Remember to buy what's in season so the produce portion of your grocery bill doesn't resemble your house payment.
The key to getting kids to do anything is to get their buy-in. Make creating a lunch menu an adventure. Arrange a special trip to the grocery store where they get to choose what to have on hand for lunch. Lest you end up with cookies and shiny packages of sugary juices, always give your children a choice between two appropriate options. Ask them: Do you want the carrots or the celery? Do you prefer the turkey or the yogurt and string cheese? Your children will feel the power of having the illusion of control, and you remain happy with either choice. To ensure that school mornings are more of a joy, have kids pre-assemble bags of vegetables, sliced fruits, nuts and snacks so lunch-bag stuffing is a grab-and-go exercise. Train children to eat right with a lunch from home, and they'll hopefully make better choices when they need to buy a lunch from the school cafeteria.