When you plan meals at home, you include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables with fish, lean poultry, or meat. The same rules apply when you pack a school lunch for your child.
That's the ideal. Then there's reality.
Children have their own ideas of what's cool, and those ideas may not score well on nutrition. Fortunately, you'll find plenty of wholesome variations of children's favorites, says Marilyn K. Tanner-Blasiar, R.D., an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.
For example, if your child doesn't like whole-wheat bread, opt for whole-grain crackers, whole-grain pasta salad, or air-popped popcorn.
"Read ingredient lists," says Tanner-Blasiar. "The first ingredient should be a whole grain. Watch the fat content as well. Look for 8 percent or less of calories coming from fat."
Children don't get enough fruits and vegetables. Turn that around with healthy lunch-bag extras. Fruits and vegetables that are peeled, sliced, or bite-sized are easy to eat.
"Cherries, when in season, are awesome. Cherry tomatoes are easy to pick up," Tanner-Blasiar says. Kids like cucumbers, too.
Protein is easy: Go with peanut butter, she says. For a change, try turkey or low-fat ham. "Avoid salami and sausage that's high in fat. Even low-fat lunchmeats are OK," says Tanner-Blasiar.
Five fresh lunch ideas
Sort of sushi. Spread 1/2 cup cooked brown rice on a softened whole-wheat flour tortilla. Arrange 1/2 cup cooked chicken breast strips and a couple of thin cooked broccoli spears on one end. Sprinkle lightly with reduced-sodium soy sauce. Tightly roll up and slice into 2-inch pieces. Wrap in plastic wrap. Add orange segments.
Seashell salad. Combine 1/2 cup cooked whole-wheat seashell pasta, 3 ounces canned tuna, 1/4 cup shredded carrots, and enough low-fat salad dressing to moisten. Pack in a container. Add a sliced apple and honey-yogurt dip.
Snacker's special. Combine 1/2 cup whole-grain toasted oat cereal, 1/4 cup roasted soy nuts or peanuts, 1 cup air-popped popcorn, and 1/4 cup diced dried apples in a plastic bag. Add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and shake well. Add a bag of cherry tomatoes and a stick of string cheese.
Pita with PB and B. Slice open two mini whole-wheat pita breads. Spread 1 tablespoon peanut butter on each. Top with thin banana slices and close. Add a small peeled cucumber (cut into spears) and a container of reduced-fat ranch dressing.
Bacon crunchers. Lightly spread honey mustard on four whole-wheat bagel chips. Cut two cooked Canadian bacon slices to fit, then place them on top of the bagel chips. Cover with baby spinach and close with bagel chips. Add a bag of strawberries.