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Pack a healthful and safe lunch for your kids

October 07, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE / Special to The Herald-Mail

If your children take their lunches to school, be sure to provide a healthy variety for them. What a child eats impacts their learning and behavior, as well as their growth and development.

Healthful

A healthful packed lunch should include good sources of protein and calcium, grains and a fruit or vegetable -- perhaps both.

If you let your children help make the decision about what goes in their lunch bag, they are more likely to eat the foods and less likely to trade or toss them. Suggestion: Let them choose from a list of healthful foods you put together.

Protein -- Protein foods could be lean meat, tuna or peanut butter.

Calcium -- Yogurt and cheese are great calcium options, but it is also easy to have children purchase low-fat milk at school.

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Grains -- There is now a whole-grain white bread you can use for sandwiches. Other whole-wheat options include crackers, pitas and tortillas.

Fruits and vegetables -- The possibilities here are endless. Consider carrot sticks, grapes, apple slices, broccoli florets, roasted potatoes or an orange.

There are ways you can get several food groups into one entree. Try having a lean ham sandwich on a bagel with low-fat cream cheese, grated carrots and a slice of pineapple. Another possible option would be a pasta salad with cheese chunks, fresh vegetables, grapes and sunflower seeds.

Safe

Consider keeping a supply of shelf-stable foods on hand for easy packing. These include crackers, nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, packaged pudding and canned fruits or meats.

When packing a healthy, safe lunch be sure to consider the container. Paper bags can sometimes get dropped and stepped on before lunch. Bags also do little to help insulate the food, though doubling the bags will help.

If you are sending things that need to be kept cold, an insulated bag might be the best choice. You can also find a good selection of plastic and metal containers that are very durable. Insulated, soft-sided lunch totes are best for keeping perishable food cold.

Keep everything clean. Start with clean hands -- wash with soap under running water, and clean food preparation surfaces and utensils. Germs that can make you sick might be on the outside of fresh fruits and vegetables. Rinse them under running tap water and blot dry with a paper towel before packing.

Keep hot foods hot. Pack soup, chili, stew or other hot foods in an insulated container to keep them 140 degrees or hotter. Preheat the container by filling it with boiling water and letting it stand for a few minutes. Drain and then fill with hot food.

Keep cold foods cold. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly between the temperatures of 40 degrees and 140 degrees. A cold source, such as a small frozen-gel pack, should be packed in any type of lunch container with food that can spoil easily. Freezer-gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime, but are not recommended for all-day storage.

Another option for keeping cold foods cold is to try freezing single-sized juice packs overnight and placing the frozen drink in your child's lunch. If your child's lunchtime is late enough, the juice will thaw by lunchtime, but it will still be cold. Make sure your child understands the importance of keeping their lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators, baseboards and other heat sources found in the classroom.

Encourage your child to throw away any uneaten food that could spoil, such as meat, poultry, egg sandwiches and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables.

Making up the lunch the night before can be a real time saver. Sandwiches should be kept in the refrigerator until time to go in the morning. A meat or cheese sandwich could be made ahead, frozen and used as a cold source in your child's lunch box.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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