School Lunch: What Are Your Kids Having for Lunch? (cont.)

And skip the cookies or other sweets. "Dessert is a treat, not a staple," McAllister says.

If bringing lunch to school isn't considered "cool" among your children's friends, make sure your children get to select their own lunch bags -- whether it's a trendy lunch box with their favorite celebrity or action figure, or an attractive insulated bag that looks more like a fashion accessory than a lunch carrier.

If your children want to buy their lunch at school, encourage them to choose the salad bar, if that's an option, says McAllister. Lean ham, shredded cheese, fruits, and vegetables are good choices, she says.

Avoid Brown-Bag Boredom

If you run out of fresh ideas for brown-bag lunches, here are a few suggested by Jody Villecco, Whole Foods Market's top nutritionist, and Jyl Steinbeck, author of 10 cookbooks for healthy living, including the upcoming Busy Mom's Make It Quick Cookbook:

  • Mozzarella cheese sticks with baked tortilla chips, a container of salsa, and orange segments
  • Fruit, cheese, and meat kabobs: Alternately thread turkey (or other low-fat meat), cheese cubes, bell pepper, and pineapple chunks on Popsicle sticks.
  • Yogurt parfait: A 6-8 oz. container of low-fat yogurt, a snack pack of low-sugar, high-fiber cereal, berries, grapes, apple slices, and/or banana
  • A low-fat tortilla spread with low-fat cream cheese, sprinkled with shredded carrots and raisins.
  • A pita pocket stuffed with lunchtime favorites like tuna, turkey and/or cheese, and chopped vegetables (or with peanut butter and jelly).
  • Cinnamon-raisin pita bread stuffed with cream cheese and grated carrots.
  • Whole-wheat bread with peanut butter, banana, and chopped dates.
  • A hollowed-out red or green pepper stuffed with tuna salad.
  • A hollowed apple filled with a mixture of farmer cheese, granola, and raisins
  • Scooped-out dinner rolls filled with tuna or egg salad.

Reality Check

Even if you pack the most delicious lunch imaginable, it's not likely you'll be able to keep your children away from the vending machines 100% of the time.

Not to worry, says McAllister -- as long as your children don't eat the snacks instead of a healthy lunch, and as long as they don't overdo it.

"As long as most of your child's lunches are healthy, an occasional soda, bag of chips, or candy bar is not a problem," she says.

Not all vending-machine choices are bad, either. The Center for Science in the Public Interest notes that some of the best ones include unsweetened applesauce cups and fruit cups, cereal mix, low-fat milk, granola bars, dried fruit, bottled water, and 100% juice

So just how do you get your kids to make these kinds of choices? That's where educating them about good nutrition at home -- and, especially, modeling healthy eating behaviors -- comes in. "Parents should eat healthy meals themselves," says Charles Shubin, MD, director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland. "They have to set the example."

Christine Gerbstadt, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, couldn't agree more.

"Kids need the support of both their family and their school to make sound nutritional choices," she says.

Originally published Monday, August 8, 2004.
Medically updated August 18, 2006.

SOURCES: Rallie McAllister, MD, author, Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim, Kingsport, Tenn. Charles Shubin, MD, director of pediatrics, Mercy FamilyCare, Baltimore. Christine Gerbstadt, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, Altoona, Pa. Jyl Steinback, cookbook author, Scottsdale, Ariz. Jody Villeco, nutritionist, Whole Foods Markets. News release, University of Utah. News release, Center for the Advancement of Health. News release, Center for Science in the Public Interest. WebMD Medical News: "Kids Eat Too Much Fat at School,' by Jennifer Warner, published Jan. 10, 2003. WebMD Medical News: "Study Shows Junk Food Rampant in Schools," by Todd Zwillich, published May 11, 2004. WebMD Medical News: "Kids' Diets Worsen as They Move Up in School," by Jennifer Warner, published April 13, 2004. WebMD Medical News: "Best & Worst of School Vending Machines," by Jennifer Warner, published Sept. 15, 2003. WebMD Medical News: "TV and Soda Linked to Childhood Obesity," by Jennifer Warner, published Sept. 8, 2003.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Editorial Review: 8/21/2006