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Healthy Lunches for Children

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In the past 30 years, the occurrence of overweight in children has doubled and it is now estimated that one in five children in the US is overweight. Increases in the prevalence of overweight are also being seen in younger children, including preschoolers. With a rise in the number of overweight children, parents must be extra vigilant when packing their children's lunches. From their first day in kindergarten until the last day of their senior year, children need nutritious lunches with fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy products to maintain good eating habits that will last for life and even improve their attention span and academic performance.


Prevelance of Obesity in Children

The prevalence of obesity in children is especially higher among certain populations such as Hispanic, African American and Native Americans. Also, while more children are becoming overweight, the heaviest children are getting even heavier. As a result, childhood obesity is regarded as the most common prevalent nutritional disorder of US children and adolescents, and one of the most common problems seen by pediatricians.


One of the main reasons for the increase in overweight children is changing dietary patterns that today include greater amounts of saturated fats, carbohydrates and refined sugars. Overnutrition has replaced undernutrition as the largest nutrition-related problem facing both children and adults. Although the percent of calories from total fat have declined over the past 30 years, total calories have increased. Soft drink consumption has also boomed, adding more calories and less nutrients to Americans' diets. Our environment also supports "oversize" through large portion sizes at restaurants. These trends play roles in the increasing rate of obesity in children and adults alike, along with lack of physical activity.


Tips to Help Establish Healthy Eating Patterns with Children

  • Parents should choose what children can eat, (what foods and drinks are in the home, what foods and drinks are served at meals and snacks, what restaurants they go to, etc) but among those foods, parents should allow kids to choose whether they eat at all and how much to eat.

  • Fruits and vegetables, as compared to high calorie snack foods (often high fat and high sugar), should be readily available in the home.

  • Serve and eat a variety of foods from each food group.

  • Use small portions - child portions are usually very small, particularly compared to adult portions. More food can always be added.

  • Bake, broil, roast or grill meats instead of frying them.

  • Limit use of high calorie, high fat and high sugar sauces and spreads.

  • Use low-fat or nonfat and lower calorie dairy products for milk, yogurt and ice cream.

  • Support participation in play, sports and other physical activity at school, church or community leagues.

  • Be active as a family - Go on a walk, bike ride, swim or hike together. Limit TV time.

  • Avoid eating while watching TV. TV viewers may eat too much, too fast, and are influenced by the foods and drinks that are advertised.

  • Replace high-sugared drinks, espically sodas, with water and/or low fat milk.

  • Limit fruit juice intake to two servings or less per day (one serving = ¾ cup) - Many parents allow their children unlimited intake of fruit juice (100%) because of the accompanying vitamins and minerals. However, children who drink too much fruit juice may be consuming excess calories.

  • Encourage free play in young children and provide environments that allow children to play indoors and outdoors.

  • Role model through actions healthy dietary practices, nutritional snacks, and lifestyle activities. Avoid badgering children, restrictive feeding, labeling foods as "good" or "bad," and using food as a reward.


Healthy Lunches for Children and Adolescents

If you're helping your child pack a lunch, start by brainstorming foods and snacks that he or she would like to eat. In addition to old standbys, such as peanut butter and jelly, try pitas or wrap sandwiches stuffed with grilled chicken or veggies. Try soups and salads, if your child is willing, and don't forget last night's leftovers as an easy lunchbox filler.


You also can take your child's current lunch and perform a lunch makeover. Here are some suggestions for small changes that do make a nutritional difference.


Instead of:Consider:
Higher-fat lunch meatsLower-fat deli meats, such as turkey
White breadWhole-grain breads (wheat, oat, multigrain)
MayonnaiseLight mayonnaise or mustard
Fried chips and snacksBaked chips, air-popped popcorn, trail mix, veggies and dip
Fruit in syrupFruit in natural juices or fresh fruit
Cookies and snack cakesTrail mix, yogurt, or homemade baked goods such as oatmeal cookies or fruit muffins
Fruit drinks and sodaMilk, water, or 100% fruit juice


Prepackaged lunches for kids are popular and convenient, but they're also expensive and can be less than nutritious and high in fat. Instead, create your own packable lunch using healthier ingredients. Consider these components and pack them in plastic containers, resealable plastic bags, or colorful plastic wrap:


  • cold-cut roll ups (lean, low-fat turkey, ham, or roast beef; lower-fat cheese; and flour tortillas)

  • cold pizza (shredded mozzarella cheese; pizza sauce; flour tortilla, English muffin, or mini pizza shell)

  • cracker sandwiches (whole-grain crackers filled with cream cheese or peanut butter and jelly)

  • peanut butter and celery sticks

  • veggie sticks with low-fat dip or dressing

  • 100% fruit juice box

  • optional dessert (choose one): flavored gelatin, low-fat pudding, oatmeal raisin cookie, graham crackers, fresh fruit


Be sure to check with your child's school to make sure that there aren't any restrictions on what kids can pack in their lunches (e.g. some schools do not allow peanut products, such as peanut butter). And don't forget to pack healthy snacks for recess and after school activites.