Back to School: Lunches & Snacks

By Carol Band

Breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks - these are what fuel kids for most of their busy day. Too often though, kids skip breakfast or fill up on chocolate milk and fries in the school cafeteria, then come home and slug down a soda and chips. That's a nutritional disaster.

"Today's kids are bombarded with messages that promote soda, chips and fast food - coupled with social messages emphasizing: 'be thin,'" says Arnell Hinkle, R.D., M.P.H., executive director of the nationally recognized California Adolescent Nutrition and Fitness program. "It's a terribly mixed message." Instead of thinking 'thin,' Hinkle says, "we need to think 'healthy and active.' Then the weight will take care of itself."

Your mother was right; breakfast is the most important meal of the day. To start your kids out right, think beyond the bagel.

"Nobody ever said that spaghetti can't be eaten before 9 a.m.," Hinkle says. "Breakfast can be whatever your child likes to eat."

Wrap up leftover chicken and cheese in a whole wheat tortilla. Keep easy-to-grab items on hand for when you are on-the-go. Individual yogurt, bags of trail mix, bananas and breakfast bars are all a better-than-nothing way to start your day.

A homemade lunch is more economical than buying a cafeteria lunch, and it's usually healthier, too. You may not be able to control how much your child eats, but at least you'll know what he or she is eating.

Tips for Breakfast, Lunch and Snacks:

  • Keep a stock of healthy snacks. "I keep 'free snacks' on a special shelf in the fridge, these are things the kids can help themselves to anytime," says one mother of 8-year-old twins. "There's a bowl of fruit, cheese sticks, yogurt and carrot sticks - things that I'm glad they are eating."

  • Pack lunches that your kids will eat. If you pack a tofu sandwich on whole wheat, it doesn't matter how healthy it is if your kid dumps it in the garbage or trades it for a Fluffernutter.

  • Urge your child's school to offer more healthful food - fresh fruits, salad bars and whole grains.

  • Substitute homemade treats for store-bought sweets. Made-from-scratch peanut-butter cookies and oatmeal bars are better than highly processed snacks.

  • Pack sandwiches using frozen bread. It will thaw and be fresh by lunchtime. Keep everything cold with a frozen juice box.

  • Offer alternatives. "A wide-mouth thermos saved my daughter, who is just not a sandwich kid," says Suzanne Rothschild, a mom of two teens. "Now she takes soups and leftovers for lunch."

  • Shop for after-school snacks and lunch supplies with your kids. Encourage them to read labels and teach them to make good food decisions at home and at school.

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