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Tips for Serving Healthy School Lunches

Healthy Bag LunchThe healthy food craze may be sweeping the nation, but for some reason, it has yet to find its way into some school cafeterias. Meanwhile, many children are inundated with unhealthy food options on a daily basis; from burgers and fries to sugary drinks masked as ‘juice’, we can only hope we’ve seen the worst.  Even still, it’s up to the parents to ensure kids are getting the nutrition they need to stay healthy and do their best at school.

“Unhealthy eating in general can cause kids to get sick more often, miss school, and even have difficulty focusing in class,” said Sarah Schein, Clinical Nutrition Manager at Abington - Jefferson Health. “They need to have the right amount of energy for in-school performance, and not eating well can prevent that from happening.”

Schein also added that foods lacking in nutritional value could also disrupt sleeping habits, which only enhances these behavioral and medical problems. “And in addition to increased heath risks, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, their self-esteem is also affected when they’re not eating right and are gaining weight,” said Schein. “These social issues can also affect their performance at school.”

Unfortunately, most of the foods targeted to kids in supermarkets or served in school cafeterias are high in total calories, saturated fat, and sodium.

One of the worst lunch options?

“Nachos with cheese and ground beef on top. Lots of schools seem to serve this, even though it’s high in saturated fat and sodium,” said Schein.

Another common dish people assume is healthy? Meatloaf and potatoes.

According to Schein, “Schools aren’t always serving the highest quality and leanest meat options, so it’s high in cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium, and calories.”

And then there are the usual culprits: cheeseburgers, pizza, cheese sandwiches. But even some brown-bag lunches are just as harmful.

“Most of the prepackaged meals like Lunchables, are guaranteed to be higher in sodium. If it’s geared towards kids, many times it may have higher levels of sugar and fat to make it taste better,” said Schein. “It becomes the parents’ responsibility to read labels, look at what they’re serving their children.”

To ensure your kids are eating a balanced meal, Schein recommends living by the mantra “fresh is always better.”

From raw fruits and vegetables to oatmeal and beans, stick to items that are low in fat, calories, and sodium. Some meals Schein recommends include a homemade yogurt parfait, fruit smoothies, or even a veggie pizza made with a whole grain English muffin.

And if you’re the parent of a picky eater, Schein emphasizes the importance of getting creative as well.

“If your child only eats three different types of fruit, try serving them by putting fruit slices on a stick, or add the fruit to other foods as well, such as adding fresh blueberries onto a waffle. Presentation is key sometimes, because your child will think it’s different,” Schein said.

But above all, it’s up to the adults to be a good influence for kids.

“Children are highly influenced, especially the younger ones. And the better job we as parents and schools do at encouraging healthy eating, the more everyone will benefit.”

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