NEW ORLEANS - Childhood obesity is a growing problem, particularly in Southeast Louisiana, so start the new school year off right! Help your child avoid back to school waist busting options such as cafeteria entrees, vending machines, and a la carte goodies, by arming them with a healthy homemade lunch.
"Once the school year starts, school-aged children spend most of their day in class and the only surefire way to make sure that they're eating right is to help them pack a healthy meal," says Elesha Kelleher, Elmwood Fitness Center Child Nutritionist and mom of three. "It's important that the kids are involved in packing their own lunch as it teaches them healthier habits and gets them involves in the process."
While common sense dictates serving up a balanced menu of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, calcium-rich low-fat dairy and whole grains, Kelleher also recommends adding some fun to the process, "Let them play with their menus and experiment with new fruits and vegetables."
Kelleher also recommends that the healthy menu doesn't end with lunch. "The food your child takes to school should be an extension of the good nutrition and meal planning that happens in your home every day. Don't make lunch the only time to eat healthy. Remember, good nutrition starts at home, not in the school vending machines," says Kelleher.
Six tips for healthy school lunches:
- Start off right. Eating a balanced breakfast will help kids focus on their lessons and keep them from being ravenous by lunchtime. A bowl of lower-sugar cereal and fruit with whole milk will do, but try to add some protein.
- Keep it fun. Healthy eats are more appealing when they're appealing to the eye. Try cutting turkey, chicken or tuna sandwiches into shapes with a cookie cutter for children. Offer wraps made with whole wheat pitas, a cold salad of whole wheat corkscrew pasta, lean chicken and turkey, or colorful and crunchy vegetables with light dressing.
- Keep it cold. A healthy sandwich will probably go uneaten if it's wilted by lunchtime. Try thermal-lined lunch boxes with a freezer pack and freeze a drink. Both will melt by meal time and keep the other foods cold.
- Keep healthy snacks on hand. Help your child ward off hunger with tasty good-for-you snacks. Consider berries instead of grapes and other fruit, real peanut butter on celery or whole wheat toast, low-sugar cereals and trail mixes packed with healthy nuts and seeds, cut up veggies dipped in low-fat dressing or hummus.
- Keep it easy. Fruits and vegetables are more likely to be eaten when they're bite-sized especially for children who are loosing teeth. Good choices are sliced apples, miniature bell peppers or carrots and other small vegetables.
- Keep some "splurges" in the mix. Every kid will want chips and candy at some point - and these foods are fine in moderation. Kelleher suggests matching the portions to your child's age. For example, nine chips for a nine-year-old or seven jelly beans for your seven-year-old.