Providing a good lunch that will get children through the rest of their school day can be achieved by walking through five steps, nutritionists say.
Using the five-step approach, a healthy and balanced lunch might include baby carrots, a carton of yogurt, an apple, peanuts and whole-wheat crackers. That's five food groups, Held says.
A turkey sandwich made with whole-wheat bread, cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato with a bunch of grapes, extra carrots on the side and a carton of milk also would be five food groups, says Tammy Thornton, a registered dietitian and nutrition/wellness services coordinator with the Washington County Health Department.
Take it step by step:
Step 1: Choose a whole-grain item
Whole-grain foods are full of fiber and contain vitamins B and E. A whole-grain food is a complex carbohydrate that requires the body to work harder in digestion. That means whole grains provide more energy for longer periods of time.
Lunchbox-appropriate whole-grain foods include breads, crackers, tortillas, pitas, bagels and cereal that all list "whole grains" as their first ingredient. Whole-grain breads, tortillas, pitas and bagels can be used as the foundation for a sandwich, and whole-grain crackers and cereals can be included on days when kids don't want a sandwich.
Sometimes packages read "100 percent wheat," "multigrain" or "stone ground." None of those words mean the food contains whole grains. The best way to decide if a food is primarily whole grain is to read the ingredients label. If the word "whole" appears before a grain like wheat, corn, oats or barley, then the food is considered a whole-grain food.
"I know some children don't like whole grains," Held says. "I've found that kids like Martin's (Famous) Potato Bread in whole wheat."
Thornton says simply substituting whole-wheat bread for white bread "is a good start" in making a child's lunch more healthful. She recommends introducing whole-grain products to kids when they are young.
"When you start a young child out on whole-wheat bread, they tend to like it," she says.
Step 2: Veggies, veggies, veggies
Children from ages 4 to 13 should consume between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 cups of vegetables each day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lunchtime is a great time to get a serving of vegetables into kids' diets, Held says. Try including a bag of celery sticks, baby carrots or broccoli florets. Sometimes Thornton includes a low-fat dip to make the veggies more interesting.
Top off a sandwich with cucumber slices, grated carrot, lettuce or tomato, Held suggests. She personally likes broccoli slaw as a vegetable addition for lunches.
"It has broccoli and carrots and cabbage," she says. She eats it without salad dressing or mayonnaise mixed in, saying the vegetable mix has a crunchy, snack appeal.
Another source of vegetables is 100 percent vegetable juice.
Step 3: Fruits, fresh or canned
Give kids a lunchbox serving of fruit by packing a juice box that is 100 percent fruit juice. It's important to read labels when buying juice to make sure packaging reads "100 percent juice" and is not fruit-flavored sugar water. Brands like Dole, Welch's, Mott's and Libby's Juicy Juice carry 100 percent juice varieties, Held says.
Add a serving of fruit to a peanut butter sandwich by topping it with raisins, banana or apple slices, Held suggests.
Prepackaged fruit is an option as long as it is packed in natural juices or water, not in syrup, she says.
Thornton uses the individual serving fruit packs when they go on sale but says "it's much better if you go the fresh route."
Step 4: Make room for dairy products
Many school-age kids can buy milk at school, which takes care of one dairy serving as recommended by the FDA. But kids who pack lunch also can get the benefits of dairy products in other ways.
A carton of yogurt, cubed pieces of cheese, string cheese, low-fat pudding or low-fat cottage cheese are all good sources of milk and dairy, say Held and Thornton.
Milk products are rich in calcium, potassium, vitamin D and protein. Calcium is used by the body to build stronger bones.
Step 5: Pick a lean protein