- 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.

Because of time constraints and other distractions, make sure lunch foods are easy to open and eat. Avoid any food that needs utensils to peel or cut. Don’t pack anything smelly, unusual or unfamiliar.

It takes an average of 10 to 12 attempts before a child will try something new. Plus, smelly foods, such as strong cheeses, are just invitations for a school bully to start teasing.

Instead of potato chips for crunch, try bagel chips, whole-wheat breadsticks, whole-grain crackers or nuts. Think of different types of bread for sandwiches.

Of course, whole grain is optimal. Other good candidates include tortillas (with bean dip and cheese, it’s a taco/burrito), wraps, pita bread, small bagels, raisin bread and miniwaffles.

Juices should be 100 percent juice. Juice drinks often have no more than 10 percent juice. They are merely soft drinks masquerading as juice. Read the labels.

Right after school, children are starving — after all, it has been hours since they ate. Make sure to have snacks readily available — great options include half a sandwich, a small yogurt, whole-wheat pretzels, a 6-ounce smoothie, nuts and dried fruits, grapes, bananas and cereal with skim milk.

Pizza is a favorite of any child, but the school versions are laden with extra fat and too little nutrition. Try making your own pizzas on whole-wheat English muffins, using part-skim mozzarella and two veggies of your child’s choice.

Make your own Lunchables. Pack whole-grain crackers in one sandwich bag, fresh turkey in another and low-fat cheese in another and let the children do the rest. You also can put in small mustard or mayonnaise condiment packages.

Lunch doesn’t have to be a sandwich. Hummus and other bean dips with carrots or whole-wheat pita are a great alternative. Celery stuffed with natural peanut butter also works. Children love all dips because they’re fun.

Low-fat salad dressings with bite-size veggies generally are a go. Cut leftover roast chicken into strips to serve with low-fat dip.

I don’t mind breakfast at lunch or lunch at breakfast as long as it’s balanced. If your child likes whole-grain cereal, add it for lunch with milk or yogurt and fruit. Make sure veggies make their entrance at dinner.

Always provide a treat for your little one, but treats don’t have to be sweet (especially if you’re trying to watch their weight). Stickers, colored pencils and small notebooks are great treats, and they don’t cause an ounce of weight gain.

A few additional thoughts about lunch:

Keep hot foods hot by using a vacuum bottle.

Keep cold foods cold using cold packs.

Wash lunchboxes every day or use brown bags.

Add antibacterial towelettes to remind your children to wash their hands before and after lunch.

Always start the day with a good, healthy, balanced breakfast. You’re home and in control for breakfast, so you can guarantee your children a good start.

Remember that healthy eating is a family affair. If you eat healthfully, it’s easier for your children to do likewise. If there is no junk food in the house, you limit temptation and temper tantrums.

Black bean burritos

8 8-inch fat-free flour tortillas

2 cups low-fat or fat-free refried black beans

1/4 cup chopped red or white onion

½ avocado, diced

½ cup cheddar cheese

1 cup salsa

1 cup nonfat sour cream

1 to 1½ teaspoons canola oil

Warm tortillas in preheated 400-degree oven until soft and pliable, 2 to 4 minutes. Spoon 1/4 cup refried black beans in a short cigar shape along bottom third of 1 tortilla.

Place a little chopped onion on top. Roll up tortilla, folding in sides as you would an egg roll. At this point, you can pack the burrito for lunch, with avocado, cheese, salsa and sour cream on the side.

If having as an after-school snack, brush tops, bottoms and sides of assembled burritos with canola oil and bake in a dish in preheated 400-degree oven, seam side down, until hot, 5 to 10 minutes. Serve condiments on the side. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving (including canola oil): 300 calories, 12 grams protein, 43 grams carbohydrates, 9.5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 4 grams fiber, 650 mg sodium

Cowboy hummus

2 cups cooked red kidney beans

3 to 4 tablespoons lime juice

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 scallions, minced

3 tablespoons minced cilantro

½ teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/3 cup vegetable broth

Whole-wheat pita or whole-grain crackers or breadsticks

Combine beans, 3 tablespoons lime juice, garlic, scallion, cilantro, cumin, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste in food processor, adding enough broth to make a soft puree.

Correct seasoning by adding salt or lime juice to taste. The mixture should be highly seasoned. Transfer hummus to a bowl or container for school. Serve with whole-wheat pita or whole-grain crackers or breadsticks. Makes 8 servings.

Per serving (hummus only): 95 calories, 4 grams protein, 3.5 grams fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 12 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 174 mg sodium

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