September 4, 2012

Healthy lunches don't have to be boring


---- — September is back-to-school time for many families, which often means getting back into the routine of packing a lunch, at least occasionally. 

Some people thrive on routine and gladly eat peanut butter and jelly with an apple every day, but many of us enjoy a little change. Packing a new or interesting lunch does not have to take long and can make a diet more appealing.

When planning a lunch, try to include at least four food groups and follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines, which recommend that half of the meal contains vegetables and fruit. 

Choose whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, tortillas, pastas and crackers, since they will be more filling. Fresh vegetables, such as carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes, green beans and snap peas, are great for a lunch box, especially if your little one likes dipping. Also consider leftover cooked vegetables as sandwich-stuffers. Fresh fruit is also great, but keep unsweetened applesauce and dried fruit, such as raisins, on hand in case you run out of the other. When it comes to protein, go beyond deli meat. Leftovers work well in sandwiches; or you could try hard-boiled eggs, nuts or nut butters (if allowed on site); and beans or bean dips, such as hummus. Lastly, dairy should be low fat. Milk, yogurt and low-fat cheeses all make great lunch choices since they are good sources of calcium and protein. 

Dips and dippers are another healthy option. All you need is a combination of vegetables, pretzel sticks and either a bean- or yogurt-based dip. To make a very simple dip, add low-fat dressing, such as ranch, to some plain yogurt to taste. Add a fruit, such as applesauce (which can double as a dip as well), to satisfy the fourth food group. 

A whole-wheat wrap can hold any of the traditional sandwich fillers and also tastes great filled with leftover roasted veggies and cheese. Also delicious is a wrap with peanut butter and a banana. Pita pockets are another fun sandwich casing. Try filling with finely chopped veggies and your child’s favorite dressing or a smear of hummus or cream cheese. 

Green salads can be topped with all sorts of foods, but also consider pasta salads. One of my little one’s favorite salads contains pasta, leftover cubed chicken, lots of peas (from frozen, thawed in the salad overnight) with a plain-yogurt and light-mayo dressing. Many combinations of vegetables, proteins and even fruit can be added to grains with light dressings to make filling and delicious lunches. Try to use whole grains, and make half of the salad vegetables, unless you are serving more fruits and veggies on the side. 

Another option is to take a look in the deli section at the pre-made lunches for kids, and assemble your own. 

To make a cold-pizza lunch, pack a half of a sandwich thin, tomato sauce, cheese and any other toppings your child likes. 

You can also do the cracker-and-cheese style lunch, but use whole-grain crackers and low-fat cheese. It takes a little more time to make your own, but then you can control the nutrition and it will often cost less.

It’s also important to follow food-safety guidelines, as many foods should be kept refrigerated. Kids should use an insulated lunch box or bag, with a reusable cold pack. If your child is taking a juice box, you can freeze that to keep the lunch colder. Perishable foods should be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and should be discarded if they are kept above that temperature for more than two hours. Usually food that is perishable and uneaten should be discarded at the end of the day, as it is unlikely it is still a safe temperature in the lunch box at that point. You may also want to purchase some reusable containers that are lunch-box sized to cut down on waste.

When you are packing lunch for your child, pack one for yourself, too. It doesn’t take much longer to make multiple lunches, and it will likely be healthier and cheaper than eating out.

Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.