How to help your kid eat lunch at school

Getting kids to eat their lunch is often a challenge. Here are eight tips

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“Twenty-two cookies and two little white buns. That was my favourite.” Doreen Henderson has peeked into the lunch packs of many a school-aged child and been surprised — even shocked — to find what’s there.

She’s a public health dietitian who works primarily with school-aged children for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health in Ontario.

Getting six- to eight-year-olds to eat well at school can be a challenge. “Besides what’s actually in the lunch, we’ve found other significant barriers,” says Henderson. Here are some tips to help your child get what he needs out of lunch:

Check out the lunchroom Kids this age really need to be seated at a desk or table — not on a gymnasium floor — to eat their lunch. There also needs to be good supervision and a calm but convivial atmosphere where the kids are allowed to socialize and there’s someone to help with tricky containers. There should also be a handwashing policy. And, Henderson says, kids are often so eager to get outside, they don’t want to take the time to eat, so some schools in her region are trying a “reverse lunch” where the children go outside to play and then come in to eat. “We’re finding they eat more and there’s less wasted food.”

To relieve the congestion and craziness that can sometimes overtake lunch period, some schools have tried a split lunch period; younger children eat first, then the older kids.

Pack a lunch with staying power Kids are more likely to eat their lunch when they’re involved in the planning, shopping and packing. “Be creative and offer lots of variety,” says Henderson. For example, make a homemade “lunchable” with slices of cheese or roast chicken, toasted bread cubes, some orange sections or carrot sticks and yogurt dip.

Build a better sandwich This mainstay is easy to manage and can contain up to four food groups in one tidy package.

• Choose whole-grain breads. You can freeze them and use frozen slices of bread for a fresher sandwich.
• Oven-roasted or baked meats are lower in salt and chemical preservatives.
• Consider alternatives to the two-slice classic sandwich. Your child might enjoy mini-pitas with hummus or cream cheese, apple roll-ups made with whole wheat wraps, or a bean, veggie and cheese burrito.

Feature fruits and vegetables Research shows that school-aged children don’t eat enough of these, so aim for one of each in their lunches, says Henderson, adding, “Crunchy fruits and veggies are nature’s toothbrush.”

• A low-fat dip will make broccoli “trees” or red pepper slices tastier.
• Cut a kiwi in half and include a spoon so your child can scoop out the pulp.
• Hard-to-peel fruits like oranges should be sectioned and sent in a container so that they’re easier to eat.

Include calcium Kids need two servings a day of milk or alternatives, such as a fortified soy beverage (note that this need will jump to three to four servings when your child hits nine years old).

• Find out if your child’s school has a milk program.
• Try freezing yogurts for a cool, calcium-rich treat.
• Buy puddings that list milk as the first ingredient.

Avoid fruit drinks “Fruit drinks are the nutritional equivalent of pop,” says Henderson.

• Opt for 100 percent fruit juice, but limit it to a maximum of one cup a day, and be sure to pack a refillable water bottle.

Limit treats According to Henderson, “research has shown that 25 percent of kids’ calories are from junk food.” She calls some granola bars “junk food in disguise.” If you want to send a “treat,” Henderson suggests sending a sticker or a note.

The key is to read labels:

• Granola and cereal bars should have two grams or more fibre, no trans fats, and less than five grams total fat.
• Choose cookies and crackers that are low in sodium and fat, and high in fibre.
• While many schools ban tree nuts and peanuts because of allergies, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are good alternatives.

Packing tips for the balanced day

Now that many schools are scheduling two extended nutrition/exercise breaks rather than the traditional two recesses and lunch, parents need to pack and label lunches carefully, says dietitian Doreen Henderson. A lunch container with two separate compartments works well, or you can label foods Break 1 and Break 2. Aim for three of the four food groups for each break and the equivalent of one meal equally divided (not two whole lunches). If you’re packing a sandwich, cut it in half and pack halves separately. Include a drink, preferably water, for each break.

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