School Lunch Basics -- Make Your Child's Meal Healthy, Tasty and Safe

by Julie Snyder

safe school lunchEarlier this year, a North Carolina preschooler had her lunch examined. She was told that her lunch was unhealthy and she was given the daycare's meal -- chicken nuggets, milk, a fruit and a vegetable -- to supplement her sack lunch.

What was in this unhealthy lunch? It contained a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, potato chips, and apple juice. Even Jani Kozlowski, a spokeswoman for the Division of Child Development said that this lunch shouldn't have been a problem.

The state's nutrition standards for pre-K lunch require milk, two servings of fruit or vegetable, bread or grains and a meat or meat alternative. When home-packed lunches don't include all of the required items, childcare providers must supplement them with the missing ones.

What's in a Healthy Packed Lunch?

Do you know what should be in your kid's lunch? We've gone through the new requirements group by group for you to make it easy.

New meal requirements outlined by the USDA, are now in effect as of July 2012. School lunches must contain fruits, vegetables, grains, a meat or meat alternative and milk. For kindergarten through fifth grade, lunch should be 550 and 650 calories each day. The requirements demand lower sodium levels, less saturated fat, and restrict trans-fats.

Meat or Meat Substitutes: Offer one serving of meat per day. Encourage your child to try out a variety of meats or meat alternatives.

• Roll ups -- lean, low-fat turkey, ham, or roast beef with low-fat cheese on whole wheat tortillas
• Cold pizza -- shredded mozzarella cheese with pizza sauce on a flour tortilla, whole wheat pita, English muffin, or mini pizza shell
• Peanut butter and celery sticks

Grains: Minimum serving is 1 ounces a day. Half of these grain products must be whole-grain rich. Only two servings per week can be in desserts.

• Bread sticks with marinara dip or nut breads with low-fat cream cheese
• 1/2 to 1 sandwich made with whole-grain bread
Vegetable pasta salad

Fruits: Send 1/2 cup of fresh, frozen or fruit canned in juice/light sugar or 100 percent fruit juice. You can substitute 1/4 cup dried fruit.

Fruity kebabs with a yogurt dip
• Apple slices, plain or with nut butter
Orange flowers

Vegetables: Each child should have a cup of vegetables per day -- dark green, red/orange, legumes, or starchy vegetables.

• Veggies with low-fat dip - cherry tomatoes, celery or carrots
• Whole grain bagel with cream cheese and green pepper slices

Milk: Send a one-cup serving of milk per day. Children may opt out of milk or use milk-alternatives.

• Carton of low-fat milk or occasional carton of fat-free chocolate milk
• 1 cup coconut or rice milk in a thermos

Send a Safe Lunch

These suggestions can help keep your child's lunch foods safe:

• Wash your hands before preparing foods.
• Use a thermos for hot foods.
• Use cold packs or freeze some foods and drinks overnight.
• Wash out lunchboxes daily or choose brown paper bags that can be discarded or recycled.
• Try mustard or olive-oil dressings and yogurt-based dips.

Does your child bring a lunch to school? What goes in the bag?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.