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What to pack in your child’s back-to-school lunchbox

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lunch box

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As a pediatrician, I often talk with families about what their kids should be eating. But packing nutritional, kid-approved lunches that have your child bringing home an empty lunchbox can be a battle! With the back-to-school season upon us, here are several tips to ensure your child is getting the necessary foods for successful growth, development and learning over the school year.

When filling a lunchbox (or dinner plate for that matter), energy requirements are a good place to start. What types of foods does your child need for energy? Our body gets energy from five different food groups: protein, dairy, grain, fruits and vegetables. Your child’s body is designed to function best when he or she gets different nutrients from all five food groups in balanced proportions. 

Let’s start with protein. Meat, chicken, and fish are good sources. Chicken tenders are a winner with all kids, but, when possible, try to offer non-fried options to avoid extra fat. For example, offer grilled chicken over fried chicken, or fresh fish over fish sticks. 

Fried foods contain unhealthy fat. Unhealthy fat is called saturated fat or trans fat. You can find these terms on nutrition labels and should look for foods containing less than 10% daily value saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.

Don’t worry, nuggets are okay sometimes too! We support balance here. Your family is busy, and sometimes convenience is key. Start by making nuggets a once-a-week treat.

Dairy has protein too, but it also has calcium which is important for strong bones. Yogurt, milk and cheese are kid favorites. Choose 2% milk rather than whole milk. It has just as much protein and calcium but a lot less fat.

Next, we have grains. When choosing bread, pasta or rice, whole grain products have more nutrition than white breads and pastas. 50% of the grain you offer your child should be whole grain. These healthy carbohydrates contain B vitamins which help brain growth and iron which helps your blood cells.

Last up, fruits and veggies. Most children should consume 1-2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables each day. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain fiber which helps their bowel function and lowers their risk of heart disease. They are also rich in vitamin C, which promotes healthy gums and wound healing. 

Foods to avoid. Dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to less than 25 grams per day. You may be surprised to see how much added sugar is in your child’s favorite foods or drinks. Juices and sweets should be limited to special occasions. 

So, how do you convince your child that balanced choices are the way to go? 

Try purchasing a divided lunch container. Each section is for one food group. Explain that we need different foods for energy. Next, give your child options in each category. For example, ask, “Would you rather have apple or banana for your fruit?” Involving your children in decision-making promotes their autonomy and develops self-regulation. 

You can also challenge your child to fill their box with foods from every color of the rainbow. Take your child shopping with you and show them how colorful the produce section is. You can show them pictures online if your family prefers curbside or grocery delivery. Try to fill your shopping cart with foods from the perimeter of the grocery store (produce, dairy, meats) before heading to the center aisles filled with processed foods. 

Lastly, model these choices at the dinner table. Let them try what you’re eating. Food can be a great way to teach your children about your family’s culture and traditions. You may be surprised what they’ll end up liking. You might even have them packing their own well-balanced lunch by the end of the year! 
If your child follows a special diet or has food allergies that make these recommendations unsafe, talk to your pediatrician about ways to incorporate appropriate nutrients into your child’s diet. 

For more ideas, visit myplate.gov. Click here to learn more about nutrition services at Texas Children’s.

External Author
Laure Cundiff, MD, Pediatric Resident, Texas Children’s Hospital