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University of Illinois Extension

Whether You Order or Pack Your Child's Lunch: Think Healthy

October 15, 2013

Experts Offer Tips This National School Lunch Week

ST. CHARLES, Ill. – A healthy lunch keeps children engaged in afternoon learning and afterschool activities. Whether those lunches are from the school cafeteria or are sent from home, University of Illinois Extension Educators offer some tips for success during this National School Lunch Week.

"When packing a lunch or choosing a lunch, you and your child could begin with a fruit, vegetable, and lean protein," said Laura Barr, University of Illinois Extension Nutrition and Wellness Educator for DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. "Dairy and whole grains also are important components to a well-balanced lunch."

University of Illinois Extension recommends modeling MyPlate, the USDA nutritional visual aid that features proper portions of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein divided into sections on a plate.

"Turkey, chicken or beans make great lean protein choices at lunch," said Jessica Gadomski, University of Illinois Extension Educator, representing the Illinois Nutrition Education Program in DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. "Food is our fuel. Much like a car, what we put in our bodies helps us function properly. Healthy foods help us not only move but think."

National School Lunch Week is October 14 to 18 this year, and it provides the opportunity to highlight key changes to meals being served at schools this year.

Now, school lunches will be making half the grains offered whole grains and offering daily fruits and vegetables, said Gadomski, who also added that this week serves as a reminder for families preparing lunches at home to think healthy too.

"By following a model like MyPlate, both parents and children can understand what foods, and how much of each, make up a healthy lunch," Gadomski explained. "Involve your children when making lunch choices and continue to engage them with dinner decisions. This will help them better comprehend what good choices look like so they can make them on their own."

She suggests posting the monthly school lunch calendar or making a packed-lunch schedule to help include the children in planning; to help vary colors, shapes and textures of choices; and to help rotate foods.

"A carbohydrate-heavy lunch digests quicker, and your child will be hungry sooner," Barr said. "Healthy proteins will slow the release of energy, keeping the body satisfied longer through the afternoon."

Protein ideas include lean meats, beans, cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs or yogurt. Whether packing or picking from a menu, children should be encouraged to choose a variety of food groups, as well as change up their choices within those food groups.

"School lunches can provide a great opportunity for children to try new things," said Barr. "'Polite bites' are a good way to get them to test new foods, while being respectful of their tastes."

Students may need to try a new food up to 10 times to decide if they like it, Barr said. Parents, school staff or food-service personnel should not to be discouraged if a student does not enjoy a food the first time, and they should continue to offer students new foods and recipes.

However, do not overload a lunch with unfamiliar choices. "If they don't eat anything in a healthy lunch, then that isn't healthy either," Barr said.

Send it Safely

Barr also advises parents to safely pack lunches brought from home. "If any foods are perishable, such as yogurt, deli meat or cheese, they should be packed in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack," Barr said.

It may help to include frozen lunch components – such as yogurt, juice or water – that will thaw and help keep the foods at a safe, cold temperature, she added.

Barr encourages parents to do an at-home experiment on a weekend to determine if their current food-packing method is safe and effective.

"Pack your child's lunch as you would during the week, but include a food thermometer. Keep it at room-temperature for the same amount of time as it is during the week.

At the end, the thermometer should read close to your refrigerator temperature, about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. "Potentially hazardous foods, like meats and dairy products, should not be in the danger zone of 41 to 135 degrees for more than two hours," Barr said. "The longer the food is in the danger zone, the higher the risk for food borne illness."

To learn more about National School Lunch Week, October 14 to 18, 2013, go to www.traytalk.org. For more information on healthy habits and nutrition, contact your local University of Illinois Extension office or visit web.extension.illinois.edu/dkk/.

University of Illinois Extension provides educational programs and research-based information to help Illinois residents improve their quality of life, develop skills and solve problems. University of Illinois Extension provides equal opportunities in programs and employment.


Source: Laura Barr, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness, llbarr@illinois.edu

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