Originally created 07/31/05

Advice from the pros: how to pack healthy lunches that kids might actually eat



ST. LOUIS - Sherry Lassa-Claxton is a registered dietitian whose twin 7-year-olds are the yin and yang of kids' eating. Nick likes healthy food like fruits and vegetables. And Jack?

"He'd eat chips all day long if I let him," says Lassa-Claxton, who struggles like any parent to pack good lunches for her school-age children.

She and three other dietitian-moms were asked to share their own experiences packing lunch. As professionals attuned to the dangers of childhood obesity and unhealthy eating, all insisted on healthy choices: cut fruits and vegetables, lean meat or peanut-butter sandwiches on whole-grain bread, low- or nonfat dairy products. All three said that once a child turns 5, skim or 1 percent milk is the rule.

But unless you want that healthy lunch to end up in the trash, it's important to offer kids variety, they agreed. And to remember that every child's tastes are different.

Each mom had her own strategy:

Althea Zanecosky, 54, of suburban Philadelphia, has an 80-20 rule - 80 percent healthy, 20 percent fun - and tries not to be too strict.

"I always say when my kids are older, they'll join a support group for children of dietitians," said Zanecosky, who grew up on bologna sandwiches packed in a smelly metal lunch box.

Her 18-year-old, Katherine, thrives on variety. She loves healthy dinner leftovers like spring rolls and sushi, or tortilla wraps with shredded veggies and cheese. She snacks on baby carrots, celery and cherry tomatoes dipped in lowfat ranch dressing. She also packs a mean rice salad with dried cranberries, raisins, pine nuts or white tuna.

Fourteen-year-old Rebecca is a different story. She derives comfort from eating the same foods day in and day out. Zanecosky mixes up Rebecca's peanut-butter sandwich routine with a sprinkling of raisins, shredded carrots, sliced bananas, coconut, even a few chocolate chips.

Rebecca also carries grapes or a banana every day. She's learning to like apples. But Zanecosky's attempts to incorporate other fruits haven't taken.

"She's been eating grapes and peanut butter sandwiches since she was 3," Zanecosky said.

Mom doesn't push variety on Rebecca at lunch, knowing she'll get more at dinner. She does insist on milk for healthy bones, even though Rebecca complains she's the only one at her lunch table drinking it.

Both daughters get a treat each day: two cookies or a small piece of candy, in keeping with the 80-20 rule.

Kids' food has to be user-friendly, said Zanecosky, who peels and segments oranges before packing them. And a brown-bag lunch should never include a food that hasn't been introduced at home first, she said. It will be tossed.

Zanecosky shakes her head at parents who pack sodas, sweets and jelly sandwiches.

"Come on," she said. "Not one kid is going to eat better than what the parent gives them."

Clinical dietitian Jeannie Moloo, 44, in Sacramento, Calif., said her three children's tastes run the gamut. Sarah, 10, eats healthfully while David, 7, is more difficult. The jury's still out on 2-year-old Alexander.

Moloo asks her children to make a list of their favorite foods from each major food group: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy and protein. They get to choose at least one food from the list each day.

"I have found that by giving them the choice, it's more likely they'll actually eat the lunch," she said.

A typical lunch for Moloo's kids might include a lean lunch meat, peanut butter or tuna sandwich on whole-grain bread topped with tomato or romaine lettuce. They get a piece of fruit - whatever is in season - and either a lowfat chocolate milk or a 4-ounce container of lowfat yogurt.

"I'm not too hip on them buying milk at school," she said. "It tends to be 2 percent. We serve skim at home."

Moloo also is careful to have healthy foods in the house. She does not buy soda or other sweetened drinks.

After school, her kids grab prepared snacks from the refrigerator - peanut butter on apple slices, light cream cheese on fruit, light ranch dressing on cut vegetables, sliced red pepper dipped in humus.

"My motto is just expose the child to every food when they're young," said Moloo. "They may not eat it the first or eighth time, but they'll develop a varied palate."

Lassa-Claxton, 40, of St. Louis, finds it hard providing enough calories for her three children - all active and thin.

Eleven-year-old Lauren - a healthy eater and "pretty demanding" about what gets packed in her lunch - eats a lot of vanilla yogurt and takes Ovaltine in her milk. An animal lover, she doesn't eat meat, so Mom packs hard-boiled eggs, tuna salad or cheese on whole-grain crackers, and plenty of cut fruit and vegetables.

"The kids at sports camp will tell her, 'We're kids. We're supposed to eat junk food,'" said Lassa-Claxton.

The boys take tube yogurt, which generally has only 2 teaspoons of sugar compared to a soda, which may have 8 or 9. They frequently buy a school lunch - hot-dogs or pizza - but Lassa-Claxton packs apples and carrots to supplement it.

Feeling she doesn't have much control over lunches, Lassa-Claxton emphasizes healthy breakfasts and dinners. She allows treats as long as her kids have eaten well that day. She also steers them from mindless eating and urges moderation.

"I ask them, are you really hungry, or are you just eating because you want the chips?" she said. "I tell them to put it away and come back to it a couple hours later if they're really hungry."

Ideas from nutritionist-moms on packing healthy lunches

Some tips for packing healthy brown-bag lunches that kids will actually eat, according to three nutrition pros who've been there:

- Emphasize cut fruit and vegetables; lean meat or peanut-butter sandwiches; whole-grain bread; low- or nonfat dairy products.

- Aim for variety, offering kids a choice among many healthy foods.

- Respect each child's tastes; what works for one may not work for another.

- Don't be too strict: Some treats are fine if kids are otherwise eating well.

- Avoid soda and other sweetened drinks.

- Make food user-friendly: Peel and chop in advance.

- Pack only foods that your kids have already tried at home.

- If your kids buy a school lunch, supplement it with fruit or vegetables from home.