- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

Sixteen-year-old Meghan Butt takes her lunch to school for two reasons.

“You don’t have to wait in line, and you know it’s something you’ll enjoy eating,” the junior says after eating the turkey sandwich, fruit cup, tortilla chips and cookies her mother packed.

Every morning, Gabriella Ubilla, 14, makes her lunch before school, today packing a rice cake, apple, crackers and cookies.

“I think it’s healthier if I pack it,” she says in the cafeteria of Dominion High School in Sterling, Va.

Parent and student lunch packers concerned about a healthy diet should, according to metro-area nutritionists and dietitians, keep in mind a few dietary goals and follow guidelines from the National School Lunch Program (www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/).

Parents can involve young students in the process of making lunch, such as letting them select a few of the items or go along on grocery-shopping trips, says Ann Cooper, co-author of “Lunch Lessons, Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.” She is food service director at the Berkeley School District in Berkeley, Calif.

“We have to feed them better food and help them with their food choices,” Ms. Cooper says.

Ms. Cooper and co-author Lisa M. Holmes point out in their book a few problems with school lunches, including the availability of fast food in cafeterias and a reliance on processed foods.

Eating unhealthy foods at lunch and other times of the day, along with a lack of exercise, has led to an increase in obesity in American children, which has doubled since 1970, the authors say. Thirty-five percent of children are overweight, and 25 percent are obese, they say.

“Food is making kids sick, and we have to change how we feed our children,” Ms. Cooper says.

The USDA-approved National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a hot-meal entitlement program required to include a protein, a fruit and/or vegetable, a starch and milk, says Jean Daniel, spokeswoman for Food and Nutrition Services of the United States Department of Agriculture. Any a la carte items sold at schools are not overseen by the USDA, she says.

Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of schools offer meals that meet the NSLP dietary guidelines, but the challenge becomes what children choose from the other options available, Ms. Daniel says.

“It’s up to the school what is offered in addition to or in competition with the school meal,” she says.

Several studies show that meals provided at school are healthier than packed lunches, says registered dietitian Kathy Lazor, director for the division of food and nutrition services at Montgomery County Public Schools.

“The meals they are getting at the schools are nutritionally balanced. They’re meeting the recommended daily allowances,” Mrs. Lazor says. “The fat level is controlled.”

If meals are brought from home, metro-area food service directors recommend looking at the USDA’s MyPyramid, a food pyramid guideline with daily food recommendations (www.mypyramid.gov).

“You need to go back to the pyramid and the foods that come from the food groups. If something doesn’t fit under there, it probably will be in the fats,” says Suzie Kollaja, supervisor of food services for Loudoun County Public Schools. “Kids need to learn the food pyramid first and foremost, how to read it and understand it.”

The school day may be the only time when nutrition is a factor in meal planning and portion sizes are controlled, says Keith Ayoob, a member of the scientific advisory board of Kinetic.com, part of the International Food Information Council Foundation in Northwest. It encourages children to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Mr. Ayoob, who has a doctorate in education, is associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.

“I get less concerned with the [National] School Lunch Program and am more concerned with what kids eat the other 18 hours,” Mr. Ayoob says. “What are they eating out of school? Do they eat breakfast? Kids who eat breakfast do better in school. They’re less likely to be overweight and more likely to have better diets overall.”

Mr. Ayoob encourages parents to get their children used to eating whole-grain bread, maybe by starting with one slice of white and one slice of whole grain in a sandwich. Instead of cookies, he suggests packing whole-grain cereal.

“List all of the items that they already eat, especially their favorite fruits and vegetables, and make sure those are [included],” Mr. Ayoob says.

Penny McConnell, a registered dietitian and director of food and nutrition services for Fairfax County Public Schools, recommends that parents who pack a lunch give their children money for milk so that it will be served cold and provide the calcium they need. Sodas, fruit drinks low in juice content, and high-fat foods should be limited in packed lunches, she says.

“Soft drinks and candy should be a treat, not a daily event,” says Ms. McConnell, past president and member of the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit professional association in Alexandria.

Creativity is an important aspect of brown-bagging it, says Sister Maureen Schrimpe, IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary), quality coordinator and dietitian at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“If you do the same old, same old, it gets old quick,” she says. “There are so many creative ways to do these things that make it exciting for kids.”

For example, sandwiches do not necessarily have to be made with bread but can be made on crackers, rice cakes and tortillas, she says. Or try putting pieces of fruit on a peanut butter sandwich to add nutrition and crunch, she says.

“Parents should expose their children to as many different types of foods that they can, even if they don’t like it,” Mrs. Lazor says.

Parents can take the advice of food servers who try to make food appealing for children.

“It has to look good, and it has to taste good,” says Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food and nutrition services at Alexandria City Public Schools. “We try to offer a lot of choice and a lot of variety.”

Serena Suthers, director of food services for Prince William County Public Schools, recommends cutting up foods, such as fruits and vegetables, so they are bite-size and easy to eat.

“We’re trying to do more combinations of different types of fruits together, so they get some variety, and they’re colorful as well,” Mrs. Suthers says.

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