Tips for quick, healthy lunches and snacks for kids

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 29, 2013 

Nancy Ging prepares a meal for her grandson Sam Ging in her Lummi Island kitchen in 2013.

JOAN GING

As our children prepare to go back to school, we parents begin to look for practical options for our children's lunches and after-school snacks. It's an important subject with the potential for serious consequences. Consider these facts:

--According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese.

--As adults, childhood obesity is associated with increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis.

--According to the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, one-third of U.S. children (ages 4-19) eat fast food every day, resulting in an average weight gain of six extra pounds per year.

--Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that French fries are the most common vegetable children eat, and make up one-quarter of all vegetables eaten by U.S. children.

--A recent USDA study found that 94 percent of schools served lunches that failed to meet USDA standards for healthy school meals.

Obviously we all want better outcomes for our children, but in today's hectic world preparing healthy snacks and school lunches can feel like an overwhelming and daunting task for busy parents. Fortunately, perfection is not required. Most experts recommend starting by making small changes. Every healthier choice made moves our children that much closer to a lifetime of good health.

QUICK AND EASY PREPARATION

Here are some suggestions to make preparing nutritious lunches and snacks quick and easy.

First, let's gear up. A small, unbreakable Thermos with a tight-fitting lid and a carrying handle will keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Be sure it has a wide mouth so your child will be able to get chunky food out easily. Add a washable recycled plastic "spork" (spoon/fork combination utensil) and you have a good foundation for packing simple lunches. The spork can be dropped inside the thermos when lunch is over so your child has one less piece to manage.

If you want to go a step farther, add an insulated zippered lunch bag. The bag should be just big enough to hold the Thermos, a tightly lidded food container or two, and a reusable cold pack you can put in the freezer each night for use the next morning. With these few items you'll be equipped to pack almost any combination of food you can imagine.

More challenging, of course, is figuring out what foods to include. Lunches need to be nutritious, quick to prepare, and - most importantly - something your child will eat.

One of the easiest ways to plan lunch is to simply prepare extra servings at dinner the night before. Put the reheated leftovers in your child's Thermos in the morning. Older children can even do that for themselves.

Another approach is to let the freezer be your friend. Set aside an evening or a weekend afternoon to make a big batch of food that can be frozen in portion sizes and used as needed. Soups, stews and one-pot meals are all good options, as are healthy dessert bars or other baked treats.

Be sure to include vegetables with lunch, too. Raw veggie sticks and a small container of dip (such as hummus or a thick salad dressing) are classics, but be creative, too. For example, try pureeing some steamed vegetables (leftovers, perhaps?) with just enough melted butter or olive oil in a blender to make a thick paste. Cooked garlic, onions, leeks or even broccoli or cauliflower make good purees. Use a puree on sandwiches as a substitute for mayonnaise, or serve a dollop mixed with steamed rice or over a baked potato.

Children may also be more likely to eat vegetables that have been roasted. Roasting caramelizes the natural sugars and makes vegetables taste sweeter.

For variety, plan modular lunches. Main dishes might be chosen from last night's leftovers, a sandwich, or a frozen portion of hearty soup. Select a side: an apple or pear, a cooked vegetable serving, or carrot sticks and dip. Finally, add an occasional healthy dessert or snack: muffin, pumpkin bar, small handful of almonds, etc.

WHAT ABOUT SNACKS?

So now you have a plan for healthy lunches. But what happens when the kids get home in the afternoon and are starving for a snack? Store-bought snacks (drinks, granola bars, corn or potato chips, snack cakes, etc.) are not usually very healthy. Commercial snacks are often little more than something to soak up the GMO-filled corn syrup sweetener or harmful transfats and excessive salt.

To plan a healthy snack, first remember that it's not an extra meal. Snack portions should be scaled down to provide a sustained energy source. Sugary sweets typically provide a surge of energy that falls off rapidly to feelings of fatigue - and fresh hunger, encouraging another round of snacking. Snacks high in protein and/or healthy fats provide a more prolonged energy boost.

Hard-boiled eggs are a high protein snack idea. They keep well in a lunch box, have few calories, and each medium egg offers a hefty 6 grams of protein.

A dozen almonds is a high-fat snack alternative. The serving packs 3 grams of protein and 7 grams of fat into a mere 80 calories.

Here's a snack idea your kids will love! Many nutritional experts recommend dark chocolate as a healthy snack. The key word here is "dark" - usually 70 percent cacao or more. Some studies have shown it helps reduce blood pressure, risk of type 2 diabetes, and may increase blood flow in the brain - perfect for your hard-working student!

Homemade snacks can provide healthy alternatives to commercial sugary snacks. For example, try using berries and plain unsweetened yogurt to make homemade popsicles. Or mix several kinds of nuts with dark chocolate chips for a healthy trail mix.

Finally, if you really like the ease and simplicity of snack bars, but really don't have the time and energy to make your own, you might try the design-it-yourself service online at youbars.com/buildabar. They allow you to select the ingredients you want, and calculate the nutritional values for you. You can order a half box to try them out.

Planning is the key. With a little advance preparation, fixing lunches and snacks for your kids can be stress free - and healthy!

Nancy Ging writes the Locavore column for The Bellingham Herald. Reach her at 360-758-2529 or nancy@whatcomlocavore.com. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter.

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