It may seem like summer just started, but back-to-school is already here. Transitioning back to a school schedule — such as getting back on a regular sleep cycle and doing nightly homework — usually takes weeks.

Packing healthy lunches is one area parents often don’t think through until just days before the first day of school. During the school year, it’s all-too-common for children to consume more than half their daily calories and meals away from home.

Here are some helpful tips to be creative and provide healthy school lunch options. 

Choose colors

Planning a school lunch when school is not in session may sound counterintuitive, but everyone gains. Parents will have time to talk with their children about healthy food choices. Kids get to give feedback on items they enjoy eating and, once school begins, will be empowered to choose healthy options that will make a well-balanced school lunch.

Remind your child that the great thing about preparing his/her own school lunch is getting to be a chef each and every time. That means that, with a little parental input, your child decides on what to cook, which ingredients to use and how the different menu items complement one another.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Energy In, Energy Out: Finding the Right Balance for Your Children” encourages families to make smart diet and physical activities choices. The backbone of the program is to encourage families to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. If your child is a picky eater, challenge him/her to think of different-colored vegetables, and see how many different colors you can combine in your child’s lunch.

Ideally, throughout the day, you and your family should consume one yellow or green leafy vegetable for a good source of vitamin A. Vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, kale, squash and carrots meet this color choice requirement.

Your family should also consume a fruit or vegetable high in vitamin C. Good choices include oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes and broccoli.

Making it fun

While meal planning is not always the most exciting chore, there are a few ways to make it fun and engage your child. One idea is to visit your local weekly farmers market with your child and choose a seasonal fruit or vegetable to include in your child’s lunch. Talk about the area that the produce was grown and how it was transported to the market.

You can also take your child to the grocery store and tour the produce section. Help your child select a rainbow array of fruits and vegetables or an item he/she has never tried before.

At home, let your child look at your recipe books and select items to try in his/her lunchbox. Of course, some parental guidance — and help from a new, kid-friendly cookbook — can be useful here. Seattle’s new and used bookstores, as well as the public libraries, have a great selection of cookbooks geared toward children.

Making a game of meal preparation can also be a fun way to engage your child. Let your child be the chef, while the sous-chef (you) provides age-appropriate guidance. Your child can be proud of his/her creation and will also start to learn his/her way around a kitchen.

Healthier drinks

Now that you’ve planned a fun food portion of the school lunch, it is also important to pay attention to the drink and avoid excessive intake of sugar.

Drinks such as soda, lemonade, sports drinks and energy drinks offer little or no nutritional value. Even drinks labeled as “100-percent fruit juice” should be consumed in moderation because fruit juice contains an excessive amount of sugar.

Better choices include low-fat milk during meal times and water throughout the day. If your child purchases milk at school, talk to him/her about choosing the low-fat option over the chocolate one.

Remember, when children eat or drink more calories than their bodies use, this can cause an energy imbalance and they can gain weight. Children in the overweight or obese categories are at much higher risk for developing lifelong diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and depression.

With a little practice, you can help shape your child’s important meal choices, turn meal planning into a fun and rewarding activity and pack healthy school lunches that your child will enjoy eating.

DR. ALEXANDER HAMLING practices pediatrics at Pacific Medical Centers (www.PacMed.org).

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