Send kids back to school with healthy meals and snacks 15-09-06You’ve got the kids’ backpacks ready with notebooks, pencils and paper, but what’s your plan for packing healthy back-to-school lunches?


The American Heart Association recommends packing a healthy lunch at home to ensure that kids get the nutrition they need without all the fat, calories and salt found in convenience foods and many school lunch meals. Too much salt, calories and fat can contribute to long-term health issues like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.


Today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese; nearly triple the rate in 1963. Among children today, obesity is causing health problems that previously weren’t seen until adulthood, like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol levels. (Source: 2011 American Heart Association Understanding Childhood Obesity Statistical Sourcebook)


Starting strong:

Healthy eating really starts before your child even leaves for school. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” says registered dietitian Pat Salzer, who is a workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and a former member of the American Heart Association advisory board in Utica.


Salzer says breakfast can be traditional, like cereal, toast with peanut butter, and a banana, or it can be something different. Leftover pizza, soup, or salad could be breakfast food. “The important aspect is to eat breakfast and get protein and fiber to start your day,” she says.


Tips on packing healthy lunches:

When packing a healthy lunch, experts suggest choosing from the rainbow of foods in your supermarket’s produce department. Include foods that are red (red peppers, apples, tomatoes), orange (carrots, peaches), green (salad, celery sticks) and choose foods from the different food groups.


The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded in 2005 with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, suggests including one serving of vegetables or salad and one serving of fruit (fresh, canned or dried all count); one serving of a low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy item such as a low-fat cheese stick, a yogurt cup, or some cottage cheese; plus one serving of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, peanut butter, beans or another protein source.


Pack healthy drinks such as water or low-fat milk. “Skip the soda,” says Salzer. “Think of the teaspoons of sugar in soda. It’s liquid candy. Instead go for water or low-fat milk.”


Salzer also suggests keeping an ice pack in your child’s lunchbox. “The perishable foods can stay cold and be safe to eat. Peanut butter and jelly is one of my favorites, or a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato on whole grain bread. Also include a fruit or raw vegetable to snack on.”


Not the same old sandwich

Pack hummus with fresh veggies and whole wheat pita triangles or flatbreads for dipping. Hummus is a good low-fat protein source and is high in iron and vitamin C. Or try low-fat or fat-free cottage cheese with carrots, cherry tomatoes, fresh berries, or melon for a calcium-rich, high-protein lunch.


Salads topped with lean protein like hard-boiled eggs, beans or chicken are a great alternative to sandwiches and they help get kids on track with their daily vegetable servings. In a hurry? Buy bags of lettuce or precut carrots or make extra salad for dinner then pack the leftovers for lunch the next day.


Didn’t pack a lunch? There are many options to choose from in the lunch line at school, some of them are healthier than others. Encourage kids to choose fruits and vegetables instead of French fries or chips and ask for grilled meat instead of fried.


“Try to get the school menu ahead of time and go through it with your child and talk about healthy choices. If they have a healthy option in mind, they might be less tempted to go for the unhealthy food,” Salzer says.


Hungry after school?

When it comes to after school snacks, think energy, not fatty, high-calorie. “Snacks are important,” says Salzer. “It’s hard to get all the nutrition you need in just three meals a day, and it can be tough to go between meals without food. Good snacks can include whole grain pretzels, baby carrots or fruit. Fruit can be dried, canned, or fresh. You can even stick bananas or grapes in the freezer for something different.”


Stick to lowfat or light yogurt instead of the full calorie varieties targeted at children. To avoid artificial sweeteners, try fat-free plain yogurt mixed with fresh fruit.


Cereal is not just for breakfast. High-fiber, low sugar cereals are fortified with vitamins and nutrients. Pour a serving size and add low-fat or skim milk for a satisfying snack that most kids can get for themselves.


Not all granola bars are created equal. Choose whole grain granola bars that are low in fat and sugar – take a look at the food label and choose the ones that contain less than 1g of saturated fat per serving and are no more than 35% sugar by weight. Make sure there’s at least 5 grams of protein.


Planning is important for your child’s eating habits. “You can’t wait for this to happen, you have to plan,” Salzer says. “Work on getting your children to buy-in. Take them grocery shopping so they are more interested and feel like they are more a part of the process. If they pick out the broccoli for dinner they are less likely to complain and more likely to be excited about it.”


For more information and recipes, visit the American Heart Association at




Back to school lunchbox strategies:

  • Get lunch ready right after dinner when you’re in the kitchen or the night before.
  • Pack leftover dinners in lunch-size containers.
  • Keep dressings on the side to prevent soggy lunches.
  • Freeze healthy drinks to keep your lunch cool.
  • Rinse and pack fruit & veggies in snack bags on Sunday night, so they’re ready to go all week long.
  • If you’re buying convenience lunches or snacks, look for those with fewer than 100 calories and the least amount of sugar, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
  • Kids eat more fruit when it’s already cut up. Try oranges and Ginger Gold or Cortland apples since they’re slow to brown.
Watch your portions:

Size matters. Portion size has a lot to do with why our kids are gaining weight. Because there’s too much of everything on their plates, our kids are getting far more calories than they need daily. To start “Operation Portion Control,” you need to know how big a portion size really is. You may be surprised to learn these are serving sizes:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • ½ cup rice or pasta (cooked)
  • 1 small piece of fruit (super-large apples are 2+ servings)
  • 1 wedge of melon
  • 1/2 cup fruit juice
  • 1 cup milk or yogurt
  • 2 oz. cheese (about the size of a domino)
  • 2-3 oz. meat, poultry or fish (this is about the size of a deck of cards)


Most servings are well over the standard portion size, so we’re all getting extra calories we don’t need. But with a little effort, we can take control. Cutting down the helpings will cut down the waistlines.

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