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Packing a healthy school lunch is easy as 1, 2, 3

What helps make a child ready to learn? Besides a good night’s sleep, it’s healthy food to fuel their brains and bodies. Making sure kids have time for a healthy breakfast that includes protein is key for preparing them for the first half of their school day.

Parents can’t be at school during lunchtime to make sure their kids are eating well, but packing a wholesome, appetizing lunch can go a long way to ensure kids don’t come home ravenous (and grumpy).

As a pediatrician, I recommend parents follow these easy steps to make their kids’ lunches nutritious — as well as increasing the odds that kids will actually eat them.

Healthy balance

  • Kids’ lunches should be full of whole foods. Steer clear of processed foods that tend to have nutrients stripped out and extra sugar added. Instead, include these:
  • Whole wheat bread or tortillas
  • Lean proteins like turkey and chicken
  • Low-fat dairy such as yogurt and cheese sticks
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Dips that contain healthy fats like hummus, guacamole and nut butters. If your child’s school prohibits peanut butter, see if substitutes like almond butter or sunflower butter are okay.

Skip sweetened beverages — a 12-ounce can of soda can contain up to 10 teaspoons of sugar, and fruit juices may have that much or more! Instead, pack low-fat milk or water, or have children get milk at school.

Mix it up

Keep lunches interesting by including a variety of foods. Sandwiches or wraps are a great standby, but try these ideas, too:

  • Healthy leftovers make a great lunch. Heat pasta, chicken or casserole and put in a sturdy thermos.
  • Pita pizzas are easy and fun. Top a whole grain pita with mozzarella cheese and roasted vegetables and bake ahead of time.
  • Try pasta salad made with fresh veggies, cubes of mozzarella cheese and thinly sliced ham or salami.
  • Hard boiled eggs or a whole grain bagel with cream cheese are solid standbys.
  • Sweet treats, like a cookie or piece of chocolate, are okay once in a while. Just be sure they’re treats, not a daily habit.

Include kids

Plan ahead with kids by giving them choices like “Would you like a plum or strawberries tomorrow?” Additional ways to involve your kids:

Go grocery shopping or to the farmer’s market together to pick out healthy produce and other foods.
Help your child make a list of favorite healthy lunch items to post on the refrigerator.
Prepare food together. Older kids can play a bigger role by making their own lunches with guidance.
Try this easy, make-ahead recipe to get kids involved:

Baked mini quiches

  • 6 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons low-fat milk
  • 1 cup cheese: cheddar, swiss or Monterey jack
  • ½ cup chopped herbs or vegetables of choice
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Ground black pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Coat muffin tin with cooking spray.
3. Whisk together eggs and milk. Add cheese, salt and pepper and vegetables. Stir to combine.
4. Pour egg mixture evenly into six compartments of muffin tin. Bake 15 minutes or until cooked through. Allow to cool.
5. Quiches can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, or frozen for later use.

If you have questions about your child’s eating habits or nutrition, be sure to talk to your pediatrician.