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13 August 1999

Vol. III, No. 3

Health Matters

Vegetarian vs. peanut butter: what to pack for your child's lunch

With the school year just around the corner, I want to be sure that my son has the most nutritional lunches possible. What foods do you suggest for a nutritious lunch?

Unlike a diet for adults, which can be driven strictly by nutritional and caloric concerns, your son's lunch menu may be as important for socialization as it is for nutrition. You may feel confident from a health standpoint in sending him off with a seaweed-veggie burger with a side of turnip salad, but it may elicit a cool reaction from his peers and cause him no small amount of grief.

In fact, sitting down with your son to plan out his menu may yield substantial dividends for both of you, says Jean Carr, staff nutritionist at the Evans Nutrition Group at Boston Medical Center. "When you include children in planning their meals, they become active participants," she says. "This encourages independence at an early age. Moreover, their participation makes it much more likely that they'll eat everything that's been packed."

Since children may find it overwhelming to choose a menu from all the available foods, you may want to give them a limited selection of items. You can easily cover the basic food groups by including a sandwich with fruit or a vegetable. The protein in the meal can be provided in the sandwich -- peanut butter is a perennial favorite, and slices of meat or cheese will also fit the bill. Children tend to like both chewy and crunchy foods, so carrots and celery sticks are a good idea.

Milk is a nutritious drink and is generally popular with children. While skim milk may be appropriate for adults, it's not necessarily a good idea for children, who need added fat for their development. Whole milk is required only for young, underweight children, while 2 percent low-fat is fine for all others. Water and fruit juices, of course, work equally as well -- but make sure they get enough calcium from other foods if they aren't drinking milk.

Snacks are good to include for recess time, if the school allows it. Ideal snacks include peanut butter on celery sticks, fresh fruit, or dried fruits such as raisins. "The so-called junk foods, like cookies, cake, and chips, are okay for children every once in a while," Carr says, "but you don't want children to expect these high-fat, high-sugar foods every day." Avoid caffeinated products, such as chocolate and cola, since they might affect concentration.

Keep in mind that your son's lunch should be "kid-sized," meaning that the portions you give him aren't large enough to satisfy an adult's appetite. Half-sandwiches and slices of fruits or vegetables are appropriate and may be easier for him to carry to school.

In addition to the food, you should place an ice pack or cool pack (some lunch boxes come equipped with these items) to keep food well preserved. Unless you are very confident of the lunch box's insulating abilities, avoid using mayonnaise-based foods, such as chicken salad and tuna salad, which can spoil easily. You may also save time by making sandwiches ahead and freezing them. Each day, take a new sandwich out of the freezer, and it should be sufficiently defrosted by lunch.

After you've tried the menu for a few weeks, ask your son for feedback. You'll be reinforcing his sense of responsibility for his own decisions, which is at least as important as the food itself.

Finally, don't be alarmed if your child wants to stick to a lunchtime staple. "Children aren't going to die if all they eat for lunch is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," says Carr. "Be patient. Eventually, they will tire of this and ask for other foods." It certainly shouldn't get in the way of his learning with his peers, which is why he's in school.

"Health Matters" is written in cooperation with staff members of Boston Medical Center. For more information about nutritional lunches or other health matters, call 638-6767.