It's not always easy to pack healthy school lunches for kids.
Try these tricks to get superfoods in at lunchtime.
Carrots are the No. 1 kid-friendly source of vitamin A and beta carotene, two essential nutrients for strong vision in the classroom, strong bones on the playground and a strong immune system for the crowded school bus. Carrots are also a top source of lycopene, a disease-fighting phytonutrient.
And kids will often eat carrots plain and raw. Cut them into kid-friendly spears, or get creative with the cutting board to keep them enticing.
Be aware, however, that carrots have made the list of dirty dozen foods high in pesticide residue, and childhood exposure to pesticide residue has been recently been linked to attention deficit disorders, among other potential health problems. (You can find the complete list of dirty dozen foods by googling Dirty Dozen.) Buy organic carrots to avoid pesticide residue - and they taste like they did when we were kids!
For a shot of calcium at lunch, nothing beats yogurt, and plain yogurt is also a top source of potassium, a key nutrient for young hearts, muscles and bones? The problem is finding a way to dress yogurt up for a kid-friendly lunch, particularly if you're avoiding the many yogurts on the market that are overloaded with extra sugars.
One great strategy is to send your kid to school not only with yogurt, but with some of her favorite whole grain cereals and chopped fresh fruits.
Because dairy products retain unwanted chemicals and antibiotics to which cows were exposed, you may want to choose organic yogurt. The GREEK yogurts provide the most nutrients and the least sugars. Also, look for yogurt packaged in containers that are BPA-free (avoid plastics marked with recycling codes 3 and 7).
Trail mix comes in all forms. The trick is to find a mix that is both healthy and kid-friendly. Experiment to find the right balance for your kid, as this can be a great source of healthy superfoods, like sunflower seeds (the top source of vitamin E), pumpkin seeds (a top source of iron), nuts (a top source of vitamin E and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids) and raisins (a top source of potassium).
Be careful to buy RAW nuts vs those that have been roasted in too much oil. And be aware that grapes and raisins are on the list of dirty dozen foods likely to have high pesticide residue levels, so buy organic to avoid exposing your kid to potentially harmful chemicals. And do check for sugar - sometimes Trail Mixes include vast amounts of sugar on top of the fructose in the dried fruits.
Vitamin C is a powerful ally for kids trying to ward off or recover from colds. But did you know that kiwis have as much vitamin C as oranges and that red sweet peppers have twice as much of the disease-fighting nutrient? (The guava has even more vitamin C, but isn't the easiest fruit to pack in a lunch, though it can be used in a delicious Hawaiian breakfast smoothie.) Swap out oranges for a kiwi or red pepper every so often for variety, and a splash of color.
Be aware that bell peppers have been on the list of dirty dozen foods likely to have high pesticide residue levels, so buy organic to avoid exposing your kid to potentially harmful chemicals.
The humble sweet potato is an inexpensive, nutrient-dense food - and the No. 1 source of potassium (it has way more than bananas) as well as a top source of vitamin A and beta carotene, making it a superfood for the heart, skeleton, muscles, eyes, immune system and bones. The problem is getting kids to eat sweet potatoes, particularly in a cold lunch.
At home, you might try a simple sweet potato mash with a dab of butter - or baked sweet potato fries. For the brown bag lunch, try baked sweet potato chips for a kid-friendly snack.
What kid would want to eat chickpeas at lunchtime? What parent wouldn't want to serve an inexpensive, low-fat food that's a top source of vitamin B6, a nutrient that supports the immune system, maintain healthy blood sugar levels and fight disease? There's only one chance of satisfying both constituents: hummus.
Hummus can be easily made at home in a variety of ways, with different additions (try orange and lemon) to make it more palatable to a child's tastes. It may take some experimentation, along with the right cracker or veggies to scoop up all the nutrient-dense goodness, but it will be worth the effort.
Dark, Leafy Greens
Getting kids to eat dark, leafy greens is about as easy as telling someone born in the 21st century who Popeye and Olive Oyl were. Beyond trying different leafy greens as a garnish to a sandwich (and let's be honest, kids know how to remove the garnish before taking their first bite) — you can send them off with some kale chips. Kale is a top source of vitamin K, which is only available from leafy greens, and helps the body repair itself from skinned knees, sprained ankles and other common playground injuries. It's also a top source of beta carotene and vitamin A. Kale chips are a crisp delivery system that might just work.
Be aware, however, that kale has been on the list of dirty dozen foods likely to have high pesticide residue levels, so buy organic to avoid exposing your kid to potentially harmful chemicals.
Tomatoes provide powerful nutrition, with among the biggest doses per serving of the disease-fighting antioxidants vitamin E and lycopene. But even if the USDA famously considers ketchup a vegetable in school lunches (we do not, since there's as much corn syrup as tomato in the typical off-the-shelf ketchup), you may struggle to include tomatoes in school lunches.
Try fresh cherry tomatoes; they offer a sweet multicolored burst kids love, and can be easily packed to avoid bruising. If that fails, there's always the old tomato-based standby: salsa. It's as easy to make salsa as it is to chop a few ingredients, experiment to find a fresh salsa recipe that your child enjoys, and pack it with some whole grain crackers for a nutritious snack. Finally, you can sneak some tomato on your kid's sandwich (turkey is a top source of both vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, and tastes great with a fresh tomato slice).