For many families, back to school means back to packing lunches. How you can you be certain that you are packing your child a nutritious lunch that they won't trade away?

We asked registered dietician Sarah Kreiger - Fit4Allkids instructor, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and busy mother of three - for advice.

What tips do you have for parents who want to pack the healthiest lunches for their kids?
Plan ahead before heading to the grocery store; get the kids involved with planning. Think of a protein, a whole grain, fruit/vegetable and a dairy source for each day when planning. Combine fruits and vegetables in one container: carrots and grapes, cucumber and melon cubes or pineapple and strawberry and pepper slices are examples. Eat similar foods at home so the foods in the lunch are welcomed and familiar.

What can parents do to ensure their kids actually eat, rather than toss or trade away, the healthy foods?
Absolutely include the kids in the planning and shopping. Why pack something a child does not like? Personally, I have my kids pick out their favorite yogurt flavor and fruit/vegetables at the store. This ensures they like what is in the lunch.

Are there common misconceptions about what foods parents and kids think are healthy, but aren't (or vice-versa)?
Packaged lunch meat can be full of sodium and sometimes saturated fat. Veggie chips and any other "fried" packaged snack chips as well as packaged foods that say "organic" can also be included in these examples. Organic is not a guarantee of nutritious.

Do you have any statistics that show how eating a healthy lunch makes you more likely to do well in school, or perform better in school sports, or anything similar?
Most of the stats are on school lunch participation. It is difficult to measure lunches brought from home since there are not any standards for lunches brought from home. Here are a few stats though:

Facts of Child Hunger in America

  • Nearly 14 million children are estimated to be served by Feeding America, over 3 million of which are ages 5 and under.
  • According to the USDA, over 16 million children lived in food insecure (low food security and very low food security) households in 2010.
  • 20% or more of the child population in 40 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2009. The District of Columbia (32.3%) and Oregon (29.2%) had the highest rates of children in households without consistent access to food.
  • In 2009, the top five states with the highest rate of food insecure children under 18 were the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, Arkansas, & Texas.3
  • In 2009, the top five states with the lowest rate of food insecure children under 18 were North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Maryland, & Massachusetts.3
  • Proper nutrition is vital to the growth and development of children. 62% of client households with children under the age of 18 reported participating in the National School Lunch Program, but only 14 percent reported having a child participate in a summer feeding program that provides free food when school is out.1
  • 54% of client households with children under the age of 3 participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).1
  • 32% of pantries, 42% of kitchens, and 18% of shelters in the Feeding America network reported that there are "many more children in the summer" being served by their programs.1
  • In 2010, 16.4 million or approximately 22% of children in the U.S. lived in poverty.
  • Research indicates that hungry children perform poorly in school and have lower academic achievement because they are not well prepared for school and cannot concentrate.
  • In fiscal year 2009, 48% of all SNAP participants were children.
  • During the 2010 federal fiscal year, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Unfortunately, just 2.3 million of these same income-eligible children participated in the Summer Food Service Program that same year. 

    1) Rhoda Cohen, J. Mabli, F., Potter, Z., Zhao. Mathematica Policy Research. Feeding America. Hunger in America 2010. February 2010.
    2) Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, Mark, M. Andrews, S. Carlson. United States Department of Agriculture/Economic Research Service, Household Food Security in the United States in 2010.
    3) Feeding America. Gundersen, C., Waxman, E., Engelhard, E., & Brown, J. Map the Meal Gap: Child Food Insecurity 2011.
    4) DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, B.D. Proctor, C.H. Lee. U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010. September 2011.
    5) Cook, John. Feeding America. Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation. Executive Summer. May 2009. 
    6) Leftin, Joshua, Gothro, A., Eslami, E.. USDA, Office of Analysis, Nutrition and Evaluation. Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2009, October 2010.
    vii USDA, FNS. National School Lunch Program: Participation and Lunches Served. Data preliminary as of September 2011

If you are still looking for more information, is a good resource for recipes and meal ideas for families to pack smarter lunches.

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