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Healthy school lunch: Cash or carry?

At school, eating a nutrient-rich lunch helps kids and teens refuel their brains and bodies. Students who eat lunch are better able to concentrate in the classroom, meet their nutrient needs for proper growth and development, and have the energy for afterschool sports and activities.

Whether lunch is packed at home or selected from the school menu, below are some tried-and-true tips to help make lunchtime at school nutritious and delicious.

Pack a power lunch

In the tummy, not the trash: When kids help plan their lunches, they’re more likely to eat them. Together, develop a list of favorite lunch items and foods your child is interested in trying, then take a trip to the grocery store.

Borrowed time: Take time on the weekend or the night before to bag lunch items for each day.

Banish sandwich blues: Some kids don’t like sandwiches or quickly get tired of the old standbys. Try alternatives for regular bread such as bagels, English muffins, focaccia bread, or tortillas. Or mix it up with pasta salads, hummus with pita bread and raw veggies, cottage cheese and fruit, hard-boiled eggs, macaroni and cheese, yogurt and trail mix, bean salads, cheese and crackers, chicken tenders, chicken salad, tuna salad or egg salad.

The magic number: For a nutrient-rich lunch, include foods from at least three food groups. After you’ve covered the bases, it’s fine to add a sweet or other treat.

Think small: Kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they’re bite-sized such as baby carrots, pea pods, grapes, apple slices or orange sections.

Milk money: Adding milk, such as low-fat or fat free white or chocolate milk, boosts the lunch’s nutritional value.

Smart sipping: Other than milk, smart beverage choices include water and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.

Keep it safe: If lunches aren’t refrigerated, pack them in an insulated cooler with a freezer pack or a frozen 100% juice box.

School lunch smarts

The new look of school meals: School meals are a nutritious and economical option. The National School Lunch Program requires that meals served in most schools meet standards for calories, fat, vitamins and minerals. In addition, to comply with the USDA Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act by 2012, schools are making over their menus to include more fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, whole grains and low-fat and fat-free milk, and less saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

Recess first: Studies show that students eat better if they participate in recess before lunch rather than after. When recess follows lunch, students are more likely to gobble a few bites of food and trash the rest in order to spend more time on the playground.

Get involved: If you’d like to help improve the school nutrition environment, volunteer to be a member of the PTO or the school’s wellness team.

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Karen Giles-Smith, MS, RDN, is a medical nutrition therapist specializing in eating disorders and a freelance writer in East Lansing, Michigan. Visit AtEaseWithEating.com and TheWellnessWriter.com

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