On school nights, Patti Anderson asks her three children what they want for lunch the next day. Her fridge is stocked to accommodate requests for butcher-sliced turkey with string cheese, low-sodium soup or chopped bell peppers.
She usually leaves her signature on their lunches, too.
“You did a great job on your choices for lunch,” she writes in a note. “I hope you enjoy them. I love you.”
Anderson, a personal trainer who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., has found that letting her children – who are 8, 10 and 12 – pick from a healthy range of options means they’ll eat their lunches. She doesn’t mind packing three meals to suit their tastes.
“It’s important to know they’re getting fed properly so their mind and body work together well to the best of their abilities,” said Anderson, 49. “I know that they’re eating well and don’t just have a bag of chips.”
As students head back to class, cooking and nutrition experts say school lunches can be a learning opportunity, especially when parents involve the students in the process.
Richie Robinson, a chef who teaches cooking classes for children, said kids become more adventurous with food when they get involved with shopping and preparation.
“Make it a game or a ritual,” he said. “If they see the stuff and they touch it and they help prepare it, they’re more interested in eating it.”
Variety and creativity are also important. Parenting magazines often include good recipes, Robinson said.
“Mix it up,” he said. “Kids have taste buds. We gotta remember they’re little chefs.”
Jan Skaar, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said packing a healthy lunch is a good way to reduce the risk of obesity and ensure that kids have adequate energy for learning and after-school activities.
“It’s a long stretch from the time they leave the house until late afternoon when they might get home. What they’re eating during the day is really important,” Skaar said.
Skaar’s youngest daughter, 16, has outgrown a Disney lunchbox. But she still likes taking her lunch to high school, now in a plain insulated bag.
“Every so often I’ve given my kids the opportunity to buy things at the school. Always they would come back and say, ‘There’s just nothing really good to choose from,’ ” Skaar said.
She said parents can avoid the high sodium and nitrates of processed foods like Lunchables by creating their own versions.
Skaar’s favorite items to pack include string cheese, yogurt, fresh fruit, grape tomatoes, sandwiches or rice cakes with peanut butter, and a granola or protein bar.
• View food preparation as a part of your child’s daily living skills.
• Shop with school lunches in mind.
• Pack lunches the night before with your child.
• Protein bars make for an easy snack. Look for bars with protein ranging from 5 to 10 grams; bars in the 15- to 20-gram range may have an altered taste children might not like.
• Freeze grapes, which will also help keep the rest of the lunch chilled.