A healthy school lunch for your child, tater-tot free

Childhood diets have been blamed for everything from the obesity epidemic to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Liz Watt, a registered dietitian at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, explains how to make packing a healthy school lunch easy.

A healthy school lunch for your child, tater-tot free click to enlarge These kids' lunches were packed by a mommy blogger. Image source: http://bonnie-simple-beauty.blogspot.com/2009/08/routines-n-junk.html.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Written by Sara Peach for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL – For parents concerned about their kids' diets, an Australian study released last month can only add to the list of worries. That study linked the “Western diet” – one heavy on salt, sugar, fat and processed foods – to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in teenagers.

Also worrisome: Candy, tater tots, corn dogs, sugary soda and other typical kid-lunch fare have been blamed for a rise in diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Lunch is a critical part of a child's diet because it contains about one-third of the calories he or she eats every day, said Liz Watt, a registered dietitian at the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont.

“If you have no food in your body, you're not able to concentrate,” Watt said. “So we definitely need to make sure we're getting a good lunch every day.”

Fortunately, packing a healthy school lunch for your child can be easy.

Start by focusing on the basics, Watt said. Instead of worrying about the number of calories or carbohydrates your child is consuming, think about the fundamental food groups: grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, nuts and beans. Select lunch items from a variety of food groups, such as turkey, cheese and bread for a sandwich with an apple and carrot sticks on the side. By building the lunch around the food groups, you're likely to give your child a well-balanced diet, Watt said.


  • If your child buys lunch at school, look over the cafeteria menu together. Recommend the healthier options, but keep in mind that it's okay to eat a hot dog occasionally.
  • For packing a lunch, Watt recommends following the “80-20” rule. That means your child's lunch should contain 80 percent healthy items, such as whole grains, lean meats, fruits and vegetables, and 20 percent “fun foods,” such as a cookie or a piece of candy. “You're not being too strict about it, and you're also not giving them a bunch of junk food,” she explained. “If it's like that, it's more likely to be eaten.”
  • Make the food as user-friendly as possible. That means cutting up apples and peeling oranges so that it's easy for your child to eat them.
  • Involve your kids in the lunch-planning process. Take them to the grocery store and get them to help pack their lunches. They'll be more likely to eat the lunch if they played a role in making it, Watt said.
  • At the same time, don't give your children too many choices, which can overwhelm them. Instead, let them choose between two items, such as turkey or ham.
  • Don't forget to keep the food safe by making sure hot foods stay hot and cold foods remain cold. Use a thermos for hot foods, such as soup. For cold foods, such as yogurt or deli meat, throw in a freezer pack or a drink that was frozen overnight.
  • To reduce morning stress, prepare lunches the night before. Try packing lunches as you're preparing dinner or cleaning up, Watt said. Leftovers often make good lunches. And don't forget to pack a healthy lunch for yourself at the same time.
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