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Packing the lunchbox with healthy ideas

­­It’s back to school time and kids returning to the cafeteria this fall returned to a new and much healthier menu.

The National School Lunch Program now requires schools to serve lunches with more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, fewer calories, and no trans fats. So far kids are giving mixed reviews of the change-up, but from a nutritional standpoint, the efforts are positive.

We can’t expect kids to develop their own healthy eating habits when we don’t give them healthy food. And the same applies to the food we pack for them at home. Sending kids to school with a healthy lunch is important for helping them establish their­­­­­ own healthy eating habits. And while healthy lunches are on the brain and the school year is still young, this is a great time to look at what’s going in your child’s lunchbox — at school and at home.

Where do you start?

A good place to start is looking at portion size. On one hand, you don’t want to overfeed your child, but on the other, children that eat too little at lunch often come home hungry and end up snacking on junk food. Polly Normand, licensed nutritionist and owner of Pioneer Valley Nutrition, says it’s important for parents to recognize that every child is different. Parents should look at factors such as age, sex, how active their child is, and how much they typically eat. It may seem intuitive, but a 16 year old that plays soccer every day after school will need considerably more calories than a 12-year-old that does not play sports.

For a rough estimate, you can look at the National School Lunch Program. According to their guidelines, calories for kids in kindergarten to Grade 5 should be capped at 650. For kids in grades 6 to 8, the cap is at 700, and kids grades 9 to 12 the cap is at 850. But again, these are just ball-park figures. The caloric intake should vary depending on the child.

What to pack

When choosing specific foods, Normand says, first make sure to incorporate a good amount of protein, which will keep your child from getting hungry throughout the day.

If you’re packing meats, stick with lean meat- lean red meats, fish, or poultry. Meat alternatives are also a great way of getting that protein in. Try peanut butter or, if allergies are a problem, even soynut butter.

When it comes to bread and grains, the rule is stick with whole grains. Whole grains are full of fiber and other nutrients, and they break down slowly. Refined grains on the other hand are broken down quickly

and cause blood sugars to spike. In other words, skip the white bread. Instead, go for whole wheat bread, whole wheat bagels, and whole grain pastas.

Grains made of flour enriched with fiber are good, but whole grains are still better. And don’t be fooled by marketing ploys. To verify that the product is actually made of whole grains, make sure the first ingredient is “whole” followed by the name of the grain, e.g., “whole wheat.” If the first ingredient is “wheat flour,” it usually means that you’re not getting the whole grain.

And though kids may object, fruits and vegetables are a very important component of a balanced lunch.

Federal school lunch guidelines now require schools to serve at least ½ cup of fruits or vegetables. This is a great starting point, but more is better. Physicians recommend kids have three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruit every day, and there are only so many opportunities in the day to get the servings of these foods in. If these aren’t your child’s favorite foods, there are ways to make them more kid-friendly. For instance, vegetables tend to go over better if there’s something to dip them in. Or try sticking them in a cheese sandwich.

Finally, try to limit the sugary drinks. And this includes juice.

Many parents gravitate towards juice because of its vitamins, but it’s loaded with sugar, and if children are getting the required amounts of fruits and vegetables, they’ll already be getting the vitamins they’d be getting from juice. Instead, Normand strongly recommends switching to low fat milk or water. If switching from juice is just not an option, opt for 100 percent fruit juice, and if you can, start to water it down a bit.

Making the switch

We might as well address the elephant in the room, which is how do you actually get your child to eat these healthy meals? How do you swap those twinkies for bananas without a fight?

Normand suggests starting to incorporate the new foods slowly while not making a big deal out of it.

Continue to pack a few staples that they normally eat but start to add a fruit or vegetable. Or continue to pack their ham and cheese sandwich, but switch the bread to whole grain, and then build from there.

And don’t feel limited to stereotypical lunch foods. If you pack a freezer-pack in your child’s lunchbox, you can get away with anything from meats and cheeses to pastas.

With any age group, if you encounter resistance, “keep encouraging the new food, but don’t force it,” Normand advises.

Forcing the child to eat a specific food will cause a whole slew of problems. And just as importantly, set a good example for your child. If you eat healthily, your child is much more likely to as well.

Katherine Butler is a volunteer at the Hampshire Regional YMCA, where she is a member of its marketing committee and a contributing writer. The YMCA is located at 286 Prospect St. in Northampton.

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