Like most parents I know, I’m always on a quest to feed my kids healthy lunches and snacks, while still keeping things interesting. Luckily, I recently spoke to registered dietitian Danielle Burge, who shared some great advice about keeping things healthy and interesting when meal-planning for kids. I was pleasantly surprised to find that her philosophy is realistic, do-able, and very flexible. A win for parents everywhere!
IBX: What does an ideal lunch look like for a child?
Danielle: A healthy lunch for a child is one that provides them with the energy they need to be physically active, be alert and ready to learn in class, improve their health, and prevent chronic disease.
Follow the USDA’s Plate Method, which outlines the ideal plate as being: a quarter fruit, a quarter vegetable, a quarter lean protein, and a quarter whole-grain. It also allows for a small side of low-fat dairy.
IBX: Do dietary needs vary by age?
Danielle: Just like for adults, dietary needs vary by energy needs. Always remember that food is fuel, so a teenager will burn more calories than a nine-year-old, who will burn more calories than a three-year-old, especially if they are very active in sports. Instead of focusing on calories, focus on your child feeling full and satisfied. Teach your child how to identify that feeling. Offer them a plate of a variety of different foods and colors on their plate.
IBX: How do I get my children interested in fruits and vegetables? (Or am I fighting a losing battle here?)
Danielle: Studies show that the younger a child is when they start eating fruits and vegetables, the more inclined they are to like them later in life. Eating healthy lunches and snacks from a young age actually changes their palate. So, as frustrating as it can be, it’s worth it in the long run. First and foremost, be a good role model — your children are going to want to eat what you’re eating. Second, get your kids involved. When you’re at the grocery store, for example, let your child pick out three red fruits or vegetables, and let them help prepare their meals. With kids, a lot of it is about how foods look, too, so take the extra time to make a food look pretty.
It also doesn’t hurt to add some parmesan cheese or ranch dressing to get your child to eat broccoli or carrots. They are still getting the nutrients from the vegetables. Some other strategies include mixing vegetables into eggs or pasta sauce, blending up fruit in a smoothie, or using whole fruit to make your own popsicles. Kids go through phases and their taste-buds change, so always keep trying. Don’t give up.
IBX: What are some forms of protein that you recommend for kids’ lunches?
Danielle: Lunches should always include some form of protein. Most lunch meats are very processed and contain sodium nitrate, which has recently been linked to some diseases. So, if you’re going to serve lunch meat, I would just recommend serving a higher-quality, nitrate-free brand. Another option is to use leftover meat from dinner. For example, you can take a pork tenderloin and serve real pork tenderloin on a sandwich as opposed to processed ham. Chicken is also great for this because you can make chicken salad sandwiches with leftover chicken and low-fat mayonnaise or Greek yogurt.
Eggs are a great option, too, and you can make a healthier egg salad with just a little bit of mayonnaise and some mustard or relish instead. Hummus is high in protein and a great option on a wrap with veggies or as a dip. Pair that with edamame, which is often kid-friendly because kids love to play with their food! Peanut butter is still a great option, just make sure it’s the natural kind that’s free of trans fat.
IBX: With food allergies at an all-time high these days, what are some alternatives to peanut butter?
Danielle: Since a peanut allergy is a different allergy than a tree nut allergy, some children who have a peanut allergy can have other nut butters such as sun butter, almond butter, or soy nut butter. Some other non-nut alternatives include guacamole paired with multi-grain chips and veggie sticks with hummus. Both hummus and guacamole come in convenient individual size packs, which are perfect for school lunches.
IBX: Bento boxes seem to be all the rage these days. Is the bento-box style of lunch considered to be healthier than your standard brown bag lunch?
Danielle: Both styles of lunch are fine. The benefits of the bento box are that it’s more visual for a child and can help with portion size. It also follows more of the plate method so it helps teach children how their plate should look. That said, the traditional brown bag lunch with a sandwich is also great as your child can still meet all their dietary needs with that style of lunch.
IBX: Let’s talk snacks. As the mom of two toddlers, our entire day seems to revolve around snacks. If we’re on the go (without refrigeration), what do you recommend for healthy snacks?
- Ants on a log
- Dried fruit or fruit leather
- Apple and peanut butter
- No-bake energy balls
- Baked oatmeal muffins
- Granola bars
- Squeeze pouches (applesauce, mixed fruits and veggies, etc). Just make sure they’re 100 percent fruit and there’s no added sugar.
- Nuts (for older children) and nut butters (great source of healthy fats, which are more filling)
If you have access to a cooler, some other options include:
- Yogurt and granola with berries (Just check the label for the amount of added sugar, which is a new guideline added onto the food label that is separate from total sugars. You want to be under 3g or 5g of added sugar per serving size.)
- Whole-wheat crackers and low-fat string cheese paired with grapes
- Fruit and/or veggie smoothies
- Veggie sticks and hummus
- Multi-grain chips and guacamole
Note: With any packaged bars or snacks, you want to make sure that sugar or high-fructose corn syrup isn’t one of the first three ingredients.
Looking for more tips on how to prepare healthy meals for your family?
If you’re an IBX member, you may be covered for six free annual visits with a registered dietitian who can help you prepare healthy meals for your family. Check to see if your plan covers nutrition counseling. To find a participating registered dietitian, primary care provider, or another network provider, Independence Blue Cross members can search our Provider Finder Tool or call 1-800-ASK-BLUE (1-800-275-2583) (TTY: 711).