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Valerie Orsoni Headshot

Counter Your School's Lunch Counter With Healthy Options

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While schools are scrambling to feed our children on mere pennies a day, parents should take a hard look at what they are feeding their children at home (or sticking in their lunch bag).

Currently, the #1 meal that schools served to students is chicken strips and fries, which is full of fat, often saturated, and sometimes even contains transfatty acids that have been proven detrimental to the healthy growth of young brains.

For those of us pushing for healthier options, there's a long fight ahead with school districts and principals that will likely take years to achieve results. In the meantime, parents can take their own steps to counterbalance the school's noon meal by arming their kids with healthy breakfasts, yummy snacks and light but nutritious dinners. Bottom line, the card can be stacked for health, as one meal lacking proper nutrition a day during the school week won't wreak havoc with a child's health if the other meals they are eating are totally healthy.

Here's a few tips:

1) Obviously, most children won't choose to stuff themselves with salads and fresh fruits at the cafeteria, making it even more important they start off right off with a nutritious breakfast. Replace all sugary cereals, which lead to the famous 10:00 a.m. fatigue, with toasted whole-grain gluten free-bread (kids love the corn-based version!) Serve with a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter, sliced apple and a freshly squeezed orange juice, and they'll be properly prepared to start their day.

2) Unless their breakfast is very early, children usually don't need to snack mid-morning. This habit has been imposed on them by parents who never had a snack themselves at this time in the day! If they really push for a snack, then go for 2 small whole wheat cookies with a handful dried fruits, especially the kind with no sulfur dioxide or added sugar or vegetable oil. As long as they're not allergic to nuts, instead of the cookies try 10 raw almonds or walnuts and mix in dried fruits. Trust me, they'll love it!

3) Although they love the taste, children don't need to drink sodas or sugary drinks. But be warned, your entire effort can cause a kid mutiny if you try to change everything all at once. Instead, do it one step at a time and try switching them over to Splenda- or, even better, Stevia-sweetened soda. Then hold this soda-drinking habit to be addressed later down the road when they're eating better and enjoying the benefits to healthier nutrition.

4) If you are sending your child to school with a packed lunch, make sure you steer clear from pre-packaged meals, which are loaded with fat and sugar. Very few of them are healthy. How can you determine their nutritional value? Check the labels and look at the saturated fat (ideally this should be close to 0 grams) as well as sugars (which should be under 20 grams for the entire box). Recently, a few healthier prepackaged options have come out, but they will cost you twice as much than if you simply prepare a quick lunchbox in the morning. You can include a home-made wrap or tortilla with salmon or ham, a few slices of tomatoes and a tablespoon of soyonnaise so that kids get the taste but not the calories or the saturated fat of regular mayo. Add to that a soy yogurt (you don't even have to tell them about the switch) and a box of seasonal berries or apple if it is more affordable and readily available.

5) If you do not provide their lunchboxes yourself, then educate your kids about nutrition to help them make the right choices. Still, despite our efforts they may still reach for an unhealthy option, but you will at least be able to balance this out with their snack and dinner. An easy afternoon snack when they get home is a banana, for instance -- a smart choice which replenishes their potassium levels after running during recess and exercising in PE (and of course I'm hoping their school still offers PE!) Another would be a little something that sounds like a treat to them, like a piece of chocolate, a small baby croissant, etc. This will help them stay away from the fridge and the cupboards until dinner time.

6) Showing your kids how healthy can also be delicious will train them well for later in life. I have a fourteen year old teenager whom I like to involve with the family cooking. This ensures that he understands what we cook, how we eat, and how we can create yummy dishes in minutes. For example, show them how to make a type of soup they like and once its done, jazz it up with a tablespoon of sour cream -- that's ok, go ahead! It will make them feel satisfied and won't add too many calories or saturated fat. Follow this with grilled fish, a veggie patty (you can even have soyonnaise with it, if desired), some sautéed veggies and a huge fruit salad with a scoop of sorbet.

There you go, you've got a healthy day!

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