As if feeding your kids wasn't challenging enough, the government's new dietary guidelines make packing last year's school lunches look like, well, child's play. While the guidelines can be scaled down for kids, the message stays the same: more whole grains, fruits and vegetables; less meat, bread and pasta. That means sending your youngster off to school fueled with a bowl of Rice Krispies and toting a lunch bag filled with bagels, chips and juice won't cut it.
What's a parent to do?
For starters, don't panic, advises Goldie Caughlan, nutrition education manager at PCC Natural Markets. "Have a positive attitude toward food," Caughlan says. "Model eating it yourselves, and keep offering nutritious food in new presentations."
There's plenty of talk these days about childhood obesity. But it's not only obesity that's at stake when children's nutritional needs aren't being met. Experts claim well-nourished kids learn better in school. According to the national non-profit Action for Healthy Kids, "Even moderate under-nutrition can have lasting effects and compromise cognitive development and school performance."
So are school children undernourished? David Chow doesn't think so. He's the extended day and summer program director at the Bertschi School in Seattle.
"Students bring things for lunch that they can warm up in a microwave oven, such as Hot Pockets, Chinese stir fry and quesadillas," he says. Other popular lunch sack items are cups of noodle soup, bagels, snap peas, carrots with ranch dip and Lunchables, Chow notes.
In his own grade school days, he lived on tater tots and hot dogs. By comparison, Chow contends, these kids eat healthy.
But most likely, not healthy enough, contends Kathleen Mahan, a dietician and owner of Nutrition by Design. Lunchables, for example, consist chiefly of carbohydrates and just a small stack of protein, she says.
"Kids don't get enough protein," Mahan says. "That's what they need for building bodies, for blood glucose management and for growing."
What to pack for school lunches
While peanut butter -- the kind made without hydrogenated fats -- is an excellent protein source, many schools have gone "peanut-free" because of the rising number of children with peanut allergies. So Mahan recommends parents pack egg salad, tuna, salmon salad or turkey, along with low-fat string cheese or hummus.
Every lunch should include a fruit and a vegetable, Mahan says. "Add a bag of baby carrots, an apple and sliced cucumbers, or sliced celery and half a peach," she suggests. "And keep the sweets small -- no more than two Oreos." Better yet is a homemade treat. "Then you've used butter or oil, not hydrogenated fats."
Beverly Pressey advises parents to offer children a variety of foods in their lunches. "Include choices they don't eat regularly, because it takes kids eight to 10 times before they become familiar with a given food," says Pressey, a dietician for the Bellevue Community College preschool and the Stroum Jewish Community Center Parenting Center. "What you would like them to eat, put in. Eventually, they'll try it."
Pressey suggests adding non-sandwich selections such as cold pasta with olive oil, soy nuts, cheese chunks or -- her idea of a perfect lunch -- great bread with olive oil, a slice of cheese and an apple.
A well-balanced meal -- one that, she says, includes some protein, fats and carbohydrates -- helps kids stay full longer and improves their concentration. "If they're not hungry, it's easier for them to maintain their focus," Pressey says. "Once they start thinking about food, they lose it."
Keep sugary products away -- it ruins their appetite for more nutritious choices -- and eliminate the juice boxes, Pressey says. "Juice is a concentrated sugar food. Your child will feel full after drinking it -- and have no reason to eat anything more."
Raising the bar for school lunches
Caughlan notes that grocery shelves are already beginning to reflect the new government guidelines and the end of the "carbohydrate as enemy" trend. "You're seeing more whole-grain pasta, more whole grains in cereals," she says.
The National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to children in public or nonprofit schools, has also raised the nutrition bar, with new, improved nutrient standards for school breakfast and lunch menus.
And parents, Caughlan says, are trying to prepare school lunches and family meals with greater dietary awareness. "Often, the time factor involved creates stress," she says. "Buying fresh fruits and vegetables, cleaning them, chopping them and trying to think of ways to get their family to eat them takes effort and planning."
But it's important parents keep plugging, planning and chopping away. "If a parent stays involved and packs her child's lunch, it says 'I thought about you, and I care about what you're eating.'" Mahan says.
Linda Morgan is the author of Beyond Smart; she writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.
7 great ideas for making a nutrition-packed breakfast
Your mother was right. Breakfast sets the nutrition tone for the day. Here are some nutritious breakfast ideas from Goldie Caughlan:
1. Serve whole-grain cereals. Good old oatmeal can't be beat.
2. Add banana, dried fruits, or frozen or dried blueberries to the cereal.
3. Make whole cereal from buzzing raw brown rice or whole-wheat kernels in blender, and then cook in salted water or milk. Add a dash of cinnamon and fruit.
4. Prepare pancakes or waffles from whole-grain flours and tuck in vegetables and fruits such as carrots, orange yams, pumpkin or winter squash.
5. Spread nut butter or seed butter on whole grain toast.
6. Make whole-grain French toast with beaten egg or beaten tofu if egg-sensitive. Top with fresh applesauce or pear sauce without sugar.
7. Smoothies are good for breakfast, lunch or snack. Load them with nutrients for breakfasts or snacks. For added protein, tuck in a spoonful of any nut better. Add banana, strawberries, blueberries -- or even kiwi fruit or fresh pineapple.