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Make Brown Bag School Lunches Nutritious,

Make Brown Bag School Lunches Nutritious, Fun for Children

Back-To-School Feature

DENTON — School cafeteria lunches offer the nutrition children need to make it to the end of the class day. But sometimes students want — or in the case of a field trip may even need — to "brown bag it."

When that's the case, packaged lunches in the refrigerated aisle of the grocery store are a temptation for many parents. But Dr. Betty Alford, professor of nutrition and food sciences at Texas Woman's University in Denton, said parents can prepare a more nutritious lunch for their child and usually at a more reasonable price.

"A number of snack foods are marketed as good lunch foods, but if you read their labels you'll see they're not," Dr. Alford said. Often, they're loaded with sodium, fat and empty calories that won't carry a child through to the final class bell.

"Children need about 2,000 calories a day, depending on their age and activity level," Dr. Alford said. "About a third of their daily calories should come from lunch.

"If they don't have enough calories and are hungry, they don't learn because they either don't have the energy to or because they get irritable."

A homemade school lunch should include fruits and vegetables for vitamins and minerals, calcium for bone development and protein.

"Fruits and vegetables can be in the form of fruit juices, tomato juice or drinks like V8," said Dr. Alford.

Of course, fruits and vegetables from the produce section of the market also work. "Smaller children like whole green beans, which is a good source of their daily vegetables. Older children could have raw vegetables with a dipping sauce. Salad dressings make good dipping sauces, and they have the essential fats children need." Yogurt also makes a good dipping sauce.

Milk is touted by nutritionists as the best source of calcium for children. "Chocolate milk is okay," Dr. Alford added. "There's not enough caffeine in it to make children hyperactive. Calcium fortified juices also are good."

Meat, chicken, fish and eggs are excellent sources of protein. However, Dr. Alford recommends staying away from luncheon meats like bologna because of their high sodium and saturated fat content. She also warns parents to keep food safety in mind when packing a lunch that includes meat products.

"Non-refrigerated meats should be eaten within in four hours. And the clock starts from the time the child leaves the house," she said. That time frame can be extended by using an insulated lunch bag, placing an ice pack in with the lunch or even freezing a juice drink and letting it keep the lunch cool.

A good, non-meat source of protein most children already like is peanut butter, which is also a good source of essential fats. Spread on a slice of calcium fortified bread, it offers parents convenience and children nutrition in a fun food.

Making food fun is one way of ensuring children eat what they take to school.

Involving children in the brown bag decisions helps make it fun, Dr. Alford said. "Experiment with foods. Let them taste and discover what they like and don't like. Involve them.

"It also becomes an excellent way to teach children about nutrition. If they want something that isn't good for them, discuss it and healthy alternatives," she said.

Parental forethought also is essential when it comes to preparing a nutritious school lunch, Dr. Alford said. "In the morning, parents are rushing around doing so many things that they might not have time to prepare a healthy lunch. Prepare it the night before when there's time, and include your child."


Tips for Preparing a Healthy School Lunch

  • Children should consume about 2,000 calories per day, depending on age and activity level. Lunch should provide about one-third of the day's calories
  • Fruits, vegetables, milk, bread, meat, peanut butter are good sources of vitamins, minerals, calcium, protein and essential fats needed for the body's development
  • Non-refrigerated meats must be eaten within four hours
  • Avoid meats like bologna that are high in sodium and saturated fat
  • To make fruits more palatable, slice the fruit and dust it with an artificial sweetener. Sugar will cause fruit to wrinkle and make it unappealing
  • Do not include sodas with a packed lunch. The high sugar content amounts to empty calories
  • If a child comes home extremely hungry, pack more calories into the next brown bag lunch

Source: TWU Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences

For Further Information Contact:

Roy Kron
Director of News and Information
Tel: (940) 898-3456