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Readers' school lunch suggestions

Last Tuesday I asked readers of my weekly Lean & Fit e-newsletter whether they follow the USDA's Food Pyramid or the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans when packing their kids' school lunches. I also invited them to share what exactly they put in those lunch boxes.

The response was terrific! Many people noted that they hoped their ideas would be helpful to others, and several said they were looking forward to seeing other folks' tips. To that end, and in light of the fact that this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column is about packing healthful school lunches, I'm turning over today's blog to school lunch suggestions. Regrettably, I can't include every entry; this is just representative sampling. Thank you to all who took time to write!

Karie: I am a mother of three children, all in elementary school. I pack their school lunches and three healthy snacks every day, all year. It is challenging to keep the lunches creative, healthy and with foods that appeal to all three children. When I make the lunches, I DO keep the Food Pyramid and food groups in mind. The driving force to me is to include something from each food group -- some type of carb to fill them up, a protein to make it long lasting, a veggie and a fruit. I try desperately to do no sugary snacks.

I also strive to keep it colorful, so it looks nice. I lived in Japan for years pre-children, so I make little bento boxes for the children with each food group in a separate compartment. An example of a lunch: one compartment will have cubed tofu, chicken breast or turkey, one with cut-up cherry tomatoes, one with cut-up fruit like watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, apple (whatever is in season), and brown rice, pasta, cheese and whole wheat crackers.

Lisa: Answer: No, I don't consider the Food Pyramid or Dietary Guidelines specifically when planning lunches for my kids. The factory food system has a powerful lobby and lots of influence on the agencies that devised these guidelines, and I don't believe it is in my family's interest to support the mass production of unhealthy products. I help my kids pack lunches every day in order to avoid the harmful substances found in the institutional food offered in the government-approved lunch line, including high-fructose corn syrup in the milk, apple sauce and canned fruit, and the transfats in everything else, and the absurdly high sodium content, and low fiber content. There is very little fresh food offered in the lunch line. So, the principles we use to pack a lunch include: healthy protein (homemade taco meat, chicken breast, beans and rice, tuna fish, peanut butter and honey, locally or organically made cheese), fresh fruit and/or vegetable (including apples, homemade applesauce, carrot sticks, cherries, salad), and a whole grain carbohydrate (minimally processed tortillas and chips, whole-grain crackers, whole-grain minimally processed bread). We are all avid label readers, and know that if we can't pronounce it, we probably shouldn't eat it. My kids look for high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats in every label before we put it in the cart, and they know that the slightest reference to artificial food coloring means it doesn't belong in our bodies. We also try to emphasize the consumption of food that we prepare at home, rather than food that comes out of a package.

The federal guidelines don't go any where close enough to the concept of eating fresh, locally produced, minimally processed foods.

Tammy: I actually do try to follow the Food Pyramid and provide something from each group if possible. ... Some days it gets eaten, and other days it comes back home. ... Other days ... "What happens during lunch stays in the cafeteria." I do try though ... and let my teens know I'm trying and why.

Lisa: When I pack lunches for my two boys, I try to include four things: a protein, a fruit, a sweet (yet healthy) snack and a savory snack. It's complicated, because neither boy will eat lunch meat, so most sandwiches are out. One child likes cheese, but the other doesn't. And one child will eat only a few fruits: applesauce (not apples), mandarin oranges (but not fresh oranges), grapes (preferably purple) or pears (only canned, not fresh). The result is a lot of yogurt and peanut butter!

Other lunch-bag mainstays: granola bars, cereal bars, reduced-fat cookies, whole-grain pretzels, peanut-butter- and cheese-filled crackers, and reduced-fat cheese crackers. I find that the reduced-fat versions of brands such as Cheez-Its, SnackWells, Oreos, Triscuits and Wheat Thins taste just as good or identical to the originals.

I buy whole-grain breads, pasta, crackers and chips whenever possible; my guys have always eaten these and don't object to them. I wish more manufacturers would use whole grains in their treats.

Sonja: My 9-year-old son has celiac (an autoimmune disease triggered by the gluten in wheat, barley and rye), so simply packing a sandwich is not an option. As a result I've become very conscious about what I pack, aiming for at least one protein, one or two fruits and one grain with some real fiber. He's a picky eater too. So in the end, his lunch looks like a bunch of snacks more than a traditional meal.

For example, today I sent him to camp with water, sliced apples, about a half-cup of dried cherries and raw almonds, two handfuls of "stix and twigs" (they're gluten-free alternatives to pretzels with other whole grains).

Another day: 4 oz boxed juice, peanut butter on gluten-free crackers, no-sugar added applesauce, popcorn. I do aim for 4-8 fruits and veggies a day. And some minimal amount of protein and fiber. But it's certainly not the traditional pyramid.

Sara: No, I don't pay attention to the pyramid.

It's always something like this --

1/2 sandwich (sliced turkey, mayo, honey mustard on white bread)
1 or 2 100% juice drinks
maybe 1 organic vanilla milk
1 "little debbie" cookie
1 lunch size bag of chips of some kind or pkg of crackers.

Rebecca: I try to follow the Food Pyramid when packing my 6-year-old's lunch, but it's difficult to find cold foods that he will actually eat. Fruit's easy (apple or orange slices), but I have trouble trouble finding grain and protein that he will eat at lunchtime. He won't eat sandwiches, so I'll often put some sliced ham or turkey in a small container (with an ice pack) and some wheat crackers or a roll in a separate container. I've also added yogurt (for dairy) and an energy bar (organic Clif Kid Z Bars), which are made with whole grains and do not have high-fructose corn syrup. Carrot sticks are the only vegetable he will eat at lunchtime, so I always include those. He takes water to drink -- or sometimes he'll buy some chocolate milk. And I'll often put an oatmeal-raisin cookie in there so he gets a little treat. It worked pretty well for kindergarten, so I'm sticking with this plan for first grade -- but I'd love to hear what your other readers are packing!

Beverly: Yes, I do pay attention.

Typical lunch is a sandwich (2 carbs and a meat and fat); fruit; water and ugg an unhealthy snack of some kind. Veggies don't seem to go over well. I know I'm missing calcium source -- but it's not consumed either ... so what to do?

Roman: We have two healthy boys who are entering first and fourth grade. When packing lunch for my sons, I'm more cautious about portion control and not being heavily invested in one of the food groups. I'm also cautious of giving them the foods that they like to eat, still focusing on food balance. I also take into consideration what they will be eating for breakfast and lunch that day; this determines how many grams of protein, carbs and fruit & veggie servings. I also put flax oil in their salads and oatmeal as well.

Glennon: I think the Food Pyramid is so ingrained in my head that I do subconsciously refer to it, but I'm paying more attention to limiting processed foods. This is challenging when my upcoming second-grader comes home wanting the same thing her classmates have. Nuts, fruits and grains are easy; good sources of lean proteins for lunch can be challenging with a picky eater contending with lunchroom peer pressure (no tuna allowed!!).

Jo: When I do pack a lunch, it's turkey on rye, fresh fruit, celery heart and chips. Curious to see what others send to school.

Joan: When packing my kids lunch, they get 2 servings of fruits and vegetables -- it could be 2 fruits or 2 vegetables or 1 fruit and 1 vegetable. I also let them choose between chips or a dessert, but not both. I try to let them know that eating junk food is okay in moderation as long as when you look back at your day, the majority of your food is healthy.

Julie: I don't pay attention to either of those recommendations, I pay attention to my grandson's food allergies (wheat, soy, cow's milk). His lunches are usually made from scratch, and we find alternatives to regular wheat-based breads. I take my lunch to work also, so we often use leftovers from last night's dinner. We try to be creative so that his lunches are interesting. He loves to take a thermos of hot soup or chili (his favorite). We only buy juices to put in his lunch for convenience, but we make sure they are 100% juice with little or no added sugar (Apple & Eve is great). Often other kids look at his lunch and say they wish they could have the same thing!

Lisa: No I don't usually think about the "Food Pyramid" when I pack our lunches and my teenage son's.

I don't always do sandwiches. I sometimes have "pot stickers" or gyozas, which he likes cold during the warm months, and we do "sushi" rolls with nori (seaweed) and the filling is usually cucumbers and vinegar sticky rice. Or rice balls with Spam 25% less sodium.

When I do pack sandwiches I try to have veggies in the sandwich, i.e. sliced tomatoes on the side (in a separate Ziploc bag) or maybe cucumbers and lettuce with the lunch meat, which is usually turkey or turkey ham and chicken or pork salami.

Cat: I absolutely try to pay attention to ensure my child gets a balanced meal! It usually consists of a whole-wheat sandwich (or whole-wheat wrap) full of some sort of protein, and a baggie of fruit (raisins, sliced apple, etc.). Then to drink, either water, juice, milk or a sports drink (i.e. Powerade or Gatorade) if I think she'll be outside a lot that day to replenish electrolytes and fluids. (We live in Georgia and it gets pretty hot!!) For dinner, she eats a green vegetable before she gets anything else, and we go from there.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 10, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness , Obesity , School Nutrition  
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Great post! It's always interesting to hear what other people think about when packing school lunch. It's something we're talking about on our blog this week with nutrition and food safety tips for parents sending their kids back to school. Check it out at

-Eric Mittenthal
Media Relations Director
International Food Information Council Foundation

Posted by: mittenthal | August 10, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Wow! These mothers are amazing. It is so hard to come up with new ideas for healthy food in lunch boxes day after day. I wrote Snack Girl to help parents with this chore - I hope it is helpful.

Posted by: snackgirl | August 11, 2010 7:30 AM | Report abuse

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