The yellow buses with flashing red lights dotting roads remind us that the school year has begun. For many of us, this becomes a busy and sometimes chaotic time of the year as our kids rush around to activities, socialize with friends and spend extra time getting projects and assignments done on time.

Busy schedules often dominate our attention as parents, but it is important to keep our health and the health of our kids on the front burner. Kids that eat healthy are better learners and have more energy to meet the demands of their busy lives.

With the start of the school year, some parents feel relief in meal planning for their kids as many participate in the School Nutrition Program and will eat a healthy breakfast and lunch at school. For other parents, providing a quick breakfast at home to get kids to school on time and packing a healthy lunch to grab on the way out the door can be a challenge.

Kudos to the parents that pack the star shaped sandwich on homemade bread and fruit and cheese kabobs in their kids’ brown bag lunch. Surely these foods are a hit at the lunch table. The good news is you don’t have to be a creative genius to pack a healthy lunch.

When packing a lunch for kids, think about including each item on this five item check list:  protein, fruit, vegetable, whole grain and dairy. Here are healthy ideas for each item on your check list:

Protein  

Meats such as turkey, chicken, roast beef, or ham and seafood such as tuna and shrimp provide protein and can be made into sandwiches or wraps, chopped on salads or eaten plain. Peanut butter and hummus are good protein sources and can be put on crackers or vegetables like celery. Hard boiled eggs can be eaten plain or added to salad. Pre peeling the eggs will save your child time during lunch. Tofu or beans such as black beans, kidney beans or garbanzo beans can be added to salads and are considered protein on the check list.

Fruit

Pieces of fruit such as an apple, banana, pear, peach, kiwi, plum or orange are easy to pack as are pre-packaged, single serving fruit or applesauce cups. Cut fruit such as melons or pineapple chunks and bite size fruits such as grapes, berries and dried fruit can be packed in small containers. Fruit snacks are not considered a fruit serving on your check list.

Vegetables

Keep a colorful variety of raw vegetables on hand such as peppers, carrots, cucumbers, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, jicama, cherry tomatoes and pea pods. If your child loves vegetable dip with veggies, pack that too. Vegetable soup counts as a vegetable on the check list as well as salsa that could be offered with chips or chunks of pita bread. Some kids like vegetable or V8 juice and these would be a check on the vegetable list. Offer a salad with dark greens and other vegetables with salad dressing for flavor and if you include shredded cheese, diced meat or hard boiled eggs to the salad you can check protein off your list as well.

Whole grains

Look for the word “whole” on the ingredient list of grains such as crackers, bread, english muffins, pasta, crackers and tortillas. Whole grains offer higher nutritional “bang for our buck” with more fiber and other nutrients. Other whole grains to consider adding to a lunch bag are popcorn, granola bars and whole grain tortilla chips.

Dairy

Even if a child brings a packed lunch to school, milk can be purchased from the school and this would be a check on the five item list. Other dairy foods to consider including in a packed lunch are cottage cheese, string cheese or cheese chunks or yogurt.

Variety

To increase variety in lunches, purchase a few small containers to fill with cut fruit and vegetables, crackers, popcorn, cold meats, cheese cubes and nuts. Investing in insulated containers will increase options for lunches when kids get bored of sandwiches. Insulated containers will keep foods hot such as soups and reheated leftovers or foods cold such as tuna salad, pasta salads or low fat milk. Use cold gel packs in insulated lunch bags to assure that other items in the lunch such as yogurts, fruits, salads and sandwiches stay cold until eaten. Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold is important in preventing foodborne illness.

Packing healthy lunches with protein, fruit, vegetables, whole grains and dairy will give kids needed fuel for the day to help them thrive and learn this school year.

Danna Woods is a registered and licensed dietitian at Welia Health.

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