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Healthy Ideas for Back to School Lunches

Teresa Tanoos's picture
You don't have to completely cut out snacks and sugars for healthy school lunch

With children heading back to school, now is the perfect time for parents to ramp up efforts to infuse their kids' lunches with creative, healthy options.

"You don't have to completely cut back on snacks and sugars to ensure that your child eats a well-balanced meal," says Dr. Joel Lavine, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at New York-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital.

"Kids can still get the sugars they crave from low-fat snacks and fruits, while parents are satisfied with the nutritional content," he adds.

For parents who have children with digestive conditions, such as Crohn's disease or irritable bowel syndrome, finding healthy food choices can be especially challenging.

Dr. Aliza B. Solomon, a pediatric gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Komansky Center for Children's Health, advises such parents to avoid sending their child off to school with trigger foods.

"For someone with active Crohn's disease, this might mean avoiding high fiber food or fresh fruit,” Dr. Solomon explains. “Children with irritable bowel should avoid foods with polyols, such as sorbitol and xylitol, often found in sugar-free gum, which can lead to bloating."

Sorbitol and xylitol are also found in other popular foods, including sugar-free or low-sugar ice cream products that can cause gas and other stomach pains in both children and adults.

In addition, diarrhea and cramping can occur if too much xylitol and sorbitol are consumed, and severe bouts of diarrhea can cause dehydration.

Nevertheless, there are ways to work around these challenges. Here are some tips from nutritionists at New York-Presbyterian Hospital for making healthier school lunches for your children:

Salty Snack Substitutions. Instead of packing potato chips or pretzels, which have no benefits, try air-popped popcorn (with a little sea salt and olive oil). This provides fiber as well as healthy fat, while providing less sodium than most processed chips and pretzels.

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Food Allergy Alternatives. For kids with peanut allergies who like their PB&J, try a sunflower seed puree or even a yellow pea puree product available on the market.

Kids LOVE Color! How about this for a sandwich alternative: "Rainbow wraps" -- spread hummus and ranch on a whole wheat tortilla and fill with chopped tomato, shredded carrots, lettuce, avocado, cucumbers, and shredded red cabbage.

Be Wise with Bread. Make sandwiches with whole grain bread instead of white bread. Choose breads that list whole wheat as the first ingredient. They're rich in fiber, B vitamins, and iron.

Choose Lean Meats. Chicken, turkey, and tuna or salmon packed in water are healthy choices for protein-packed meals.

Consider the Calories with Cheese. When adding cheese to sandwiches, opt for low fat or fat-free varieties. Cheeses are high in calcium, which is an important mineral for growing children, but they can also contain a great deal of saturated fat. Low-fat alternatives make a great choice, containing 3 grams of fat or less per ounce.

Encourage Their Involvement. Work with your children to pick healthy choices:

1. Go shopping with them

2. Let them help you prepare meals

3. Encourage new choices

4. Offer them a variety

5. Embrace their curiosity and creativity

SOURCE: NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, Nutrition (last modified 11/30/2008).