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Too Much Lunch?

For some kids, it's best to have several smaller meals than one big lunch

Crunched for time and distracted by friends, many kids wind up with half-eaten or thrown-away lunches – and come home famished. Sound familiar? Kids are growing and need food fuel to make it through the day. Yet it's just as important to think realistically about what to put in their lunchboxes. By paying attention to what they're really eating, you might find yourself trimming their lunch portions in favor of larger after-school snacks.

The value of lunch

We've all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but for many school kids, lunch is the first. Farmington resident Sandy Baumann, a nutrition consultant and the author of Feed Your Brain for Learning, talks to school kids throughout metro Detroit about healthy food choices.

In a study of a second-grade class, she found 20 percent of kids had come to school without having breakfast. She says that's typical. Running late is a common culprit – or maybe they're just not hungry.

For breakfast skippers, lunch is especially important. But experts say that all kids need a food-powered energy boost in the middle of the day to keep them awake, alert and ready to learn.

The right amount

A study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at how food portions have been increasing between 1977 and 1996. And it found that the sizes are increasing, especially in salty, fatty foods.

For example, 20 years ago, a portion of soda would have been about 6.5 ounces; today it's 20, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Even seemingly healthy snacks like bagels are growing – 20 years ago, they were about 3 inches in diameter and a respectable 140 calories. Today, that bagel would be double at 6 inches and 350 calories.

So what might look like a small meal to you is probably just right for your child. Southfield mother of three Lynne Schreiber has come up with her own "rule of three" for her two preschool-aged children. "I pack three things in their lunches – a small sandwich or yogurt for protein, a fruit and some veggies." Schreiber says she tries to be realistic. For the vegetable, she often includes a Ziploc baggy with 10 olives – one for each finger.

Look at your own kids' lunch to see if you've fallen prey to the smorgasbord philosophy. If your kids keep coming home with a half-eaten sandwich, instead of telling them to eat the whole thing, just pack half. Often, experts say, kids are better at reading their "fullness" clues than we think.

The setting

Even if you've found that right amount to pack in your kid's lunch, there's still no guarantee that your carefully-prepared meal will be eaten. Two reasons: short lunches and lunches mixed with recess.

"I have been there (in the cafeteria) at lunchtime, and I have noticed that they have a very short time to eat," says Evangelina Edwards, a Livonia mom of three elementary school-aged children. "They get excited to play at recess. What I see is kids swallowing their food so fast they don't even bite."

Socializing is a factor, too. For many kids, lunch is the first time in the day where they have a chance to talk to friends. No wonder chewing-intensive foods like apples go untouched. Distractions run high, and some kids simply need a quieter setting to concentrate on eating their meals.

Lunch solutions

Absent longer lunches and changing kids' natural social tendencies – how do you get them to eat lunch?

"I do think it's entirely appropriate to give a child a more substantial snack after school," says Dr. Julie Lumeng, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan who studies children's eating habits. She calls the shift from smaller lunches to bigger after-school snacks "reframing." For moms like Edwards," that means providing a "mini-meal" after school.

It's certainly food for thought. After all, for some kids, lunch is at 11 or even 10:45 a.m. – not during the true middle of the day. No wonder some come home hungry!

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