The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 9, 2012

Bag lunch can be both interesting and healthy

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

— Of course, it really is just easier to eat lunch at school. After all, they’ve got hard-working people there doing their best to make good food for all to enjoy.

But sometimes you just get a picky kid who doesn’t want a corn dog or has never liked the school’s pizza. Or maybe you think you can give your kid a healthier meal if you make it yourself.

These are the cold lunch kids, the ones who don’t have to wait in the cafeteria line, the ones who have an extra pouch or bag to carry along with their backpacks full of textbooks and spiral notebooks.

Believe it or not, there are many ways to make a cold lunch that aren’t nearly as boring, or even as cold, as you might think.

Erin Gonzalez, a registered dietitian at the Mankato Clinic, advises Mankato Area Public Schools on their school lunch menus. She also has a ton of ideas for parents on ways to inject some creativity — and maybe even some nutrition — to a kid’s lunch sack.

Some families are doing it right, she said, and some ...

“Walking through the cafeteria, I see a variety,” Gonzalez said. “Some just blow me out of the park — they’re perfect. Then I’ve seen other ones with a candy bar and a pop.”

Breakfast is still the most important meal of the day, but lunch shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to nutrition.

Every bag lunch should have protein, fruits, vegetables and a dairy product (such as yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, etc.)

When it comes to sandwiches, whole-wheat bread is the best. Whole-grain bread is better than white bread. For that matter, you don’t even need bread at all. At least,not the traditional kind, to make an interesting sandwich.

Pretzel rods can be used as a unique vehicle for sandwich fixings. Wrap the meat and cheese around the rod, Gonzalez says.

Also, sandwich doesn’t have to mean peanut butter and jelly or turkey and ham. Gonzalez suggests taking English muffins, spreading cream cheese on them and loading them up with fruit for a kind of fruit pizza. Smush them together for a fruit pizza sandwich.

Cookie cutters can transform a routine sandwich into a show piece. And when Christmas comes, don’t be afraid to break out the Santa, reindeer or candy cane shapes.

Few things are as important in this lunch equation than the vegetables. Few things are also harder to get kids to like.

To help, Gonzalez suggests sending little container of dip along with the carrot sticks and cucumber slices. (But be careful with these. Some are very high in calories, which sort of defeats the purpose of a healthful lunch.) And to make things even more interesting, try this: Take a container of regular Greek yogurt and infuse it with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix.

Cold lunch doesn’t have to be cold. Insulated containers, such as Thermoses, are designed to keep food hot for hours. This would be a good time to make use of leftovers. If you made something the night before that your kids dug, why not send a little more of it with them to school?

“We tend to fall into traps,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes you need to think outside the box.”

Whatever you choose to send for lunch, Gonzalez says it’s very important to get kids involved with what you’re sending them to eat. Getting their input, she said, makes them feel empowered. If they believe they’ve had a say in their lunch instead of merely taking what’s been given to them, they’re more likely to eat it.

She says one of the best things she’s seen is a family who made a list of each category the lunch will include: sandwich, fruits, vegetables and dairy. Parents compile a list of healthful options within each category, and the child makes choices.

“I really think it’s about having the kids get involved,” she said.