Beating the Sack Lunch Blues

My 7-year-old brings his lunch to school. Every. Single. Day.  Which wouldn’t be so bad except for two things: 1. He’s vegetarian. 2. His school is a tree-nut-free zone. This puts some serious crimps into my protein options. And he apparently treats his lunch like a beanbag – the day I sent a banana, it came home so disgustingly mushy that I promptly tossed the bag into the washing machine. His excuse? “Michael sat on my lunch.” Hmmm.

At the start of the school year I’m gung ho about packing lunches, but two months in, my enthusiasm is long gone. So I sent out a request for help in spicing up my repertoire via e-mail to Leah Hammel, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer at Studio Element in Clayton.

“Peanut butter and other nut butters are a great source of protein for a quick lunch sandwich,” she responded. “However, with the growing number of nut allergies many schools are becoming ‘nut-free’ zones. A good alternative is hummus or cream cheese. Smear some hummus inside a whole-wheat pita and stuff with your favorite veggies: cucumbers, shredded carrots, mushrooms, sweet peppers. Or try cream cheese on a whole wheat English muffin topped with strawberries and blueberries. Bean dip can be another option for a Mexican style lunch. Spread bean dip on a whole wheat tortilla top with 2 percent shredded Cheddar, salsa and sliced sweet peppers. Roll it up for a lunch burrito.”

These are definitely not foods my son is used to seeing, which Hammel said could potentially be OK. “Although introducing a new food at lunch is not usually a good idea, lunch is a great opportunity to reintroduce a new food with more familiar foods,” she said. “Let’s use broccoli as an example. You added some steamed broccoli to the mac and cheese the kids had for dinner last night. Now for lunch today, send some leftover steamed broccoli with a side of their favorite dip. Both times you introduce the food with a familiar favorite. The first time, you led by example and enjoyed the broccoli also.”

“The more kids see a food the more comfortable they will become with it,” Hammel added. “It may take a child 18 to 20 introductions to a new food before they are comfortable with it.”

Hammel had more good advice, too:

Q: Will kids like my son, who lives on cheese sticks for lunch, get enough nutrients from them?  

A: “Cheese sticks are a great lunch option because they provide a lot of nutrients growing kids need, and adults too. They provide a good source of calcium, vitamin D, phosphorous, protein, zinc, vitamin A and B12. However, they also contain a lot of sodium and fat. So it is important to offer your child a variety of foods. The more variety, the more nutrients. Think colors -the more varied the colors on your plate, the more nutrients your child will be getting. Try tuna or egg salad on a tortilla with lite mayo or mustard, or even just a hard boiled egg as a good alternative to cheese.”

Q: What is your opinion on pre-packaged Lunchables-type foods?

A: “Pre-packaged lunch options are often high in fat and sodium -and costly. Fat and sodium are two nutrients Americans, including children, get way too much of. In many cases, parents and children can pack a much healthier version of the same type of lunch if they purchase the items separately. For example, pack a few whole-grain crackers with a few different types of 2 percent cheese squares. You can add some sliced cucumbers to either top the crackers and cheese or use as a cracker. Throw in some canned fruit packed in juice and some milk and you have the same type lunch.”

Q: How do I convince my son not to try to trade for junk food that other kids bring?

 A: “The question of all ages!  Make your lunch exciting and new. Kids love surprises, so mix it up on them. Don't get stuck using the same old bread day after day. Try various types like rye, pumpernickel or even mini dinner rolls, pita pockets, English muffins, mini bagels and tortillas.  Just try to keep them whole grain. Kids love making their own meals, so put together all the burrito fixings and let them get creative.

“Prepare shredded veggies like carrots and lettuce, give them some salsa and cheese or meat and let them make a burrito at school. You know what they’re getting and they have control to eat what they want.

“Kids love dips! Prepare some of their favorite sliced veggies and fruit and send a few different dips, like hummus, tzatziki, low-fat yogurt with some curry, bean dip or low-fat cream cheese.  Pack a little surprise like a note of encouragement, some stickers, erasers, personalized pencils or just an ‘I love you’ on a napkin.”

Hammel’s final point was reassuring to me as a mom who worries whether her son is getting enough nutrients to keep him going all day. “Although, there is no ‘ideal formula’ for sack lunches,” she said, “it is important to include whole grains, fruit and vegetables and a source of protein. Variety is the spice of life. The more variety in your lunches, the more likely your kids are to eat them and the more nutritious they will be.”

She recommended that parents who aren’t sure how much their child needs to eat check out Mypyramid.gov, “a great website that can help with exact serving sizes for your child.”

By Amy De La Hunt, Health Blogger for SmartParenting

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Amy De La Hunt is a journalist and editor who lives in the St. Louis metro area and works across the country as a writer, copy editor, project manager and editorial consultant on everything from fiction books to monthly magazines to blog posts. When she's not chauffeuring her teenage sons to activities, Amy is an enthusiastic amateur cook, landscaper, Latin dancer and traveler. Follow Amy on Instagram @amy_in_words

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