School is starting across the region, and that means it’s time think about packing a lunch box. A pediatrician has some advice on picking healthy foods your kid will actually eat.
Dr. Florencia Segura, a pediatrician in Fairfax County, says a good lunch has “balance and variety,” and managing that goes back to knowing your food groups — whole grains, fruits, vegetables, meat and protein alternatives, dairy, and healthy fats.
“So for lunch, we try to target at least three to four food groups for a healthy, balanced meal,” Segura says. “And especially your protein, your fiber, your healthy fat, is really what’s going to help nourish your kids and keep them satisfied and feeling full throughout the day.”
Proteins can include tuna, hard-boiled eggs, turkey slices, or chicken; hummus is a good meatless alternative. Whole grains can include a whole wheat bagel (with cream cheese doubling as healthy fat), toast, English muffins, tortillas, a wrap, or pasta, while fruits could include strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or watermelon. Good vegetables for lunches include carrots (or carrot sticks or carrot chips), bell peppers, cucumbers, and celery sticks.
“So an example of a lunch could be something like hard-boiled eggs, toast with nut-free butter (if your child’s school doesn’t allow nut products), red pepper slices, and grapes,” Segura says.
Vegetables are often the hard sell with kids, and Segura’s big tip is to remember that a big bag of raw broccoli isn’t all that appealing to a lot of people at any age. That’s where the healthy fat of ranch dressing comes in.
“My kid doesn’t eat broccoli,” Segura says. “And I love broccoli, but it has to be seasoned, or I like dipping it in ranch dressing or hummus. A lot of these foods, and a lot of vegetables, do need an extra zing.”
She also advises keeping in mind what the school is offering for lunch. Nowadays, “school lunches can actually be even healthier than the lunches packed by parents, depending on what you’re packing. They’re offering vegetables; they’re offering fruit, and they’re offering proteins,” she says. Schools will usually send home, or post, menus of what they’re going to be offering during the week, “so you can go over that with your child.”
Segura suggests getting your kid a lunch box with sections, similar to a bento box, to make a visual cue to fill it up with foods from different groups. That helps kids visualize the concept as well. As they get older, you can give them choices within each group, with the end goal of having them pack their own lunches.
What About Sweets?
Of course, being a kid means getting bombarded with sweet temptations, and Segura says the key to making sure kids don’t go overboard is similar to the keys in a lot of parenting decisions: routines and rules.
“I advise families to have a policy of sweets during the school week,” she says. “Is it going to be two days a week at school that you pack something sweet? Or is it just on the weekend? So everyone knows what the policy is.”
A lot of families say, “’We’ll save sweets for Friday after school — we’ll go to the ice cream shop, or we’ll do something fun,’” Segura says. “And they know what the policy is.”
One big mistake parents can make is thinking these choices don’t really matter, Segura says.
“Most kids actually do eat their lunch, because this is the time that all their friends are eating; the school’s making time for them to eat. And so their sole focus is on eating; they’re usually going to eat their best at this time.”
She has one more piece of advice to help educate kids about healthy food.
“I don’t like using the word ‘healthy,’” Segura says; “I like using the word ‘growing’: ‘This is what’s going to help you grow. This is what’s going to nourish you.’”
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