- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As far as I’m concerned, education is not just what children learn in school. It’s also what they learn at home.

Given all the pressure to eat unhealthfully, the lunches we pack and the sales pitches that go with them had better be good if we want our children to eat well away from home.

It’s a great way to teach children to eat well. However, I can tell you as sure as I’m writing this that if they are not eating healthfully at home, all your good efforts in packing those healthy lunches will go to waste. Those lunches will be traded or tossed so fast, they won’t see second period.

I’m a dietitian with a private practice in Miami, and I have a client, a mom, with an overweight child. Their house is stocked with “itos.” That’s snack foods, cookies and candies — if you get my drift. The mom packs a healthy lunch for her son, but it comes home untouched.

Instead, he snacks on empty-calorie, high-fat vending-machine munchies or he eats at one of the fast-food concerns near school. Then he goes home to more of the same. No wonder he’s overweight and tossing out his healthy brown-bag lunch. According to children, if it’s OK at home, it must be OK elsewhere.

Moms and dads, you are the gatekeepers of the family, and that means in the kitchen as well as elsewhere. When I was growing up, I thought until the age of 7 that a Ritz cracker was a cookie.

As an adult, I parlayed my healthy home education into a profession. That doesn’t mean I don’t splurge occasionally, but I never keep junk food in the house. It’s a special treat, just as I was taught.

I want to give credit where credit is due. School lunch programs have improved over the years, mainly because of the national obesity crisis, but not nearly enough and not at all schools. Although some schools have rid themselves of soda machines, installing water and juice machines instead, most have not.

According to a study by Harvard’s School of Public Health, 80 percent of elementary and high schools studied had fast-food restaurants within walking distance if not on the school campus. Needless to say, this is not good for our children.

So, before we dive into what should be packed in school lunches, I would like you to do me a favor. Put down this article, walk to the kitchen, open the pantry and the fridge and get rid of the “itos” and anything else that contains an ingredient you can’t pronounce. Trust me. Your children will thank you later. (Yes, I know that’s hard to imagine.)

First, you need the right supplies. Elementary school children love a new lunchbox. Younger children also respond to color and activity.

Buy colored plastic wraps and cartoon napkins to help make their lunches enticing. Middle and high school children might prefer a smaller lunch bag, something that fits into a backpack. Let them pick. Remember that good nutrition can start with the cool factor.

Parents are the key to success. If you believe food is directly related to brain function, academic performance and energy, you can easily relate this to your children. Here are some tips for achieving the highest possible success rate in getting your children to eat healthfully.

Know your children’s likes and dislikes. If they won’t eat it at home, don’t pack it. Get them involved in the preparation. When they choose, they’re more likely to eat it. Plus, you start teaching them how to cook.

How much food to pack depends on age, height, weight and activity of the child. Until girls are about 11 and boys turn 8, a whole sandwich is too much. (They still have a fruit and a beverage.) Remember, children only have about 20 minutes for lunch. Pack accordingly.

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