Nutritious bag lunches and snacks

It's in the Bag

by Karen Hanson, R.D. and Nancy Burton


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Regardless of your age or circumstance, it is very possible to plan and pack a nutritious, appealing and fun meal or snack. This can easily be accomplished via a carry along bag, box or the good 'ole standby, the brown sack. Sack lunches don't have to be repetitious, predictable and boring. With the availability of thousands of products on today's grocery shelf, variety is the "norm," not just the desired. Before you let your creativity fly, let's take a minute to review the how-to's of packing a safe and nutritionally sound lunch and/or snack. Our serving sizes will vary depending on the age for which we are packing. However, our food needs are basically the same. Using the Food Guide Pyramid as a base, plan on including foods from all or as many groups as possible each meal.

When planning from the base of the pyramid, the Breads and Starches group, try different types of breads; you might be surprised what you or your child will like. There are many selections available, such as bagels of all flavors, English muffins, pita breads, tortillas, pretzels, and basic and flavored muffins. Carbohydrates don't have to come from just breads. Try rice cakes, pretzels, cereal bars, crackers, and croutons for soups and salads. Have you considered sending cereal for lunch? Pack nutritious, preferably non-sweetened, cereals in a lidded bowl, and your children can purchase milk at school to add at mealtime. The base of the pyramid is the foundation of a healthy, nutritious day's intake. Try to include at least two servings in lunch from these all-important sources of carbohydrates, our energy source.

Moving up the pyramid, fruits and vegetables add great color, texture, and taste variety to our sack lunch, not to mention the nutrients and fiber they offer! Fruits are easy to prepare for a lunch away from home. The standards are apples, bananas, grapes and oranges (peel and section before packing). Sprinkle lemon juice on apple slices to prevent browning. Consider strawberries, pineapple, cantaloupe and other melons. Check your grocer's salad bar for fun and new fruit salad blends and mixes. Flavored yogurt makes a great dip for fruit, as does peanut butter. Try dried fruits; there's several flavored apple rings available, as well as dried fruit mixes including different nuts for added protein.

Vegetables don't have to be boring! Baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and celery sticks are probably the easiest vegetables to send for hand held eating. Fill celery sticks with cream cheese, pimento cheese or peanut butter. Try including finely chopped veggies in sandwich fillings or soups. What parent wouldn't rather see their child eat a little dip with the raw vegetable than seeing them toss out the cooked version? Broccoli, "little trees," are often much greater accepted in the raw state.

Moving up the pyramid again, we enter into the protein zone. Consider a few non-traditional choices such as sandwiches made with apple butter and thinly sliced or shredded cheese or cream cheese and thinly sliced apples. Or try cream cheese mixed with crushed pineapple that has been well drained. To perk up peanut butter and jelly, try adding raisins, sliced bananas or finely chopped celery. This is great on raisin bread or banana bread too! If filling tortillas or pitas, try adding coleslaw or fresh spinach rather than lettuce. Pack all the fixings for a sub sandwich or hoagie into a long lidded container. Then all your child needs to do is pop it all into the pre-sliced bun you packed along side. Lunch doesn't have to be your typical sandwich fare; kabobs are fun for kids to eat. Include veggies, chunk cheese and meat and let your child assemble. Besides considering the specific food, also consider the presentation of the food. Sandwiches can be cut into fun shapes by using cookie cutters. Mix up the color and textures; the possibilities are endless.

The Milk and Dairy group offers another great source of protein, as well as the all-important calcium for active, growing children. There are many sources beside the typical fluid milk. Try yogurt cups, drinkable yogurt, or even yogurt in a push-up packet. Cheese offers a great source of protein and calcium.

The tip top of the pyramid cannot be forgotten! All foods fit in a healthy diet in moderation, even the sweet treats and added fats and sugars. A snack size candy treat or cake packet add variety and fun to the lunch sack, and with all the other great nutritional offerings already included, foods from this group will fit in just fine!

Tuck something special into your child's lunch once in a while: A note from Mom or Dad, a piece of their favorite candy, a homemade coupon for an after school treat, etc. Make lunch a fun time of day for your child; use colored plastic wrap, use stickers to seal sandwich bags or to close brown bags, send theme napkins on holidays and birthdays. Kids like things in "their size" servings. Cut sandwiches into triangles, bake brownies and muffins in a mini-muffin pan, etc. Lunch periods are often short so lunches should be easy for the kids to eat and don't send too much. If your child has a small appetite at home, remember to keep portions small in order to cut down on waste. The best way to ensure that your child eats what you send is to include them in the process. Let them take part in menu planning, shopping and preparation (do as much the night before as possible to cut down on morning hassles). The lunch packing process will be enjoyed by both parent and child when it is a fun time together.


Karen Hanson is a Licensed and Registered Dietitian and has 25 years experience in the field of clinical and wellness nutrition. She is also certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Instructor. She resides with her husband and four children near Wamego, Kansas.

Nancy Burton is Director of Marketing for an architectural firm and a closet home economist. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Wamego, Kansas.

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