From the February 2018 issue

How to Pack a Heart-Healthy School Lunch for Your Child

A Children's Hospital of Michigan dietitian shares tips for packing a school lunch that's healthy and delicious.

It’s never too early to start thinking about your child’s heart health – including first thing in the morning as you’re packing school lunches.

While it’s easy to throw in whatever is handy when you’re in a rush, bag lunches are actually a great opportunity to make healthy choices that can shape your child’s diet long-term. What you pack – or don’t pack – could affect your son or daughter’s heart health.

“I don’t think that’s something that parents think about often,” says Lyndsay D. Beaupré, R.D., a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “They’re trying to think of things that are quick. A lot of parents assume if they’re packing a lunch instead of having them buy lunch, then it’s healthier anyway.”

But it’s all about what’s in the lunch box that makes the difference. The earlier you start heart-healthy habits, the more likely they are to stick. It’s more important than ever since heart disease is on the rise.

“A lot of us think about heart health because we have grandparents or older relatives who have some kind of a heart condition,” Beaupré says. “If we start to instill these habits in our kids when they’re young and if parents can be more diligent about it, then we can kind of shift these issues that we’re having with older patients now.”

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In honor of American Heart Month this February, here’s a look at some tips for packing school lunches that are heart-healthy and delicious.

1. Skip the juice box

“A lot of parents just throw a juice box in without thinking about it,” Beaupré says. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids drink no more than 4 ounces of juice per day. “Even if it’s a small one, you’ve already doubled the recommended amount of juice that day.”

Instead, send your child to school with water or unflavored milk.

“There are a lot of kids at risk for obesity and diabetes, which can lead to heart disease down the road,” she says, and sugary drinks don’t help. “Eventually it would have heart implications but it’s something we should be doing for our kids in general.”

2. Send more fruits and vegetables

Try to add more fruits and vegetables to your child’s lunch box, Beaupré suggests. Stick with fresh fruits rather than pre-packaged fruit cups and make it easier by preparing several servings in advance.

“On a Sunday afternoon you could cut up fruits and vegetables and your child can come through and pick out what they want for their lunch,” she says.

Fruits and vegetables are an important source of fiber. To check your child’s intake, know that kids ages 4-10 need “their age plus 5” grams of dietary fiber per day.

“Most of our kids aren’t getting enough fiber,” she explains. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially the ones with skins, and roughage is what gets you more fiber. Dietary fiber is directly related to keeping blood lipid levels normal.”

3. Don’t forget the protein

To keep kids from filling up on snack foods, be sure to include a healthy protein in your child’s school lunch.

“I always tell parents to start with a protein so the child stays satisfied and isn’t wanting to snack on other junk,” Beaupré says.

A hard-boiled egg or low-sodium lunch meat are smart choices. If you’re including a sandwich, make sure to use whole grain bread. Leftovers can also be a good idea, if properly stored.

“Watch your labels for your bread,” she notes. “As long as you’re starting with the right bread, I think a sandwich is a great choice.”

4. Add a low-fat dairy product

Consider packing low-fat yogurt, string cheese or plain cottage cheese in your child’s lunch.

“Low-fat dairy is linked to good heart health,” Beaupré explains. “Good sources of calcium are really important, especially for those really young kids who are still developing bones.”

Green vegetables are another good source of calcium, she says. If your child is craving a treat with lunch, consider a muffin made with mashed bananas or applesauce instead of sugar.

5. With teens, start small

If your older child or teenager is already hooked on some bad lunch habits – like buying french fries in the school cafeteria or leaving campus to go out for fast food – encourage them to start small.

“Make a few small changes at a time,” Beaupré says. For example, cut out soda and drink water instead.

“So many kids are drinking more than 2,000 calories a day because they want to sip on pop and Gatorade and fruit punch,” she says. “After that, try to take some baby steps. Maybe it’s an apple and french fries. Try to make it a small, doable change.”

For more information on the Children’s Hospital of Michigan or to make an appointment, visit childrensdmc.org.

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