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Healthy lunch choices available for kids

In less than a week, students will head back to school armed with backpacks and lunch boxes, but the question is, what’s inside?

The backpacks are easy — schools distribute supply lists. But the lunch boxes are a different story.

Patty Ferman, registered dietician at Mizell Memorial Hospital, said parents should view lunch and snack time as an “opportunity.”

“Use those times as a chance to steer your child toward good choices,” Ferman said. “You can’t force a child, but you can make it easier to eat healthy. Especially with younger kids, you can start by explaining how a nutritious lunch will give them the energy to finish the rest of the school day and enjoy after-school activities.

“And buying lunch at school may be the first time your child gets to call the shots about which foods he or she will eat,” she said. “The good news is that school lunches have improved over the years, both in taste and nutrition.”

Ferman said parents should encourage children to choose meals that include fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, such as wheat bread instead of white. Also, avoid fried foods when possible and choose milk or water as a drink, she said.

“If you’re helping your child pack a lunch, start by brainstorming foods and snacks that he or she would like to eat,” she said. “In addition to old standbys, such as peanut butter and jelly, try pitas or wrap sandwiches stuffed with grilled chicken or veggies. Try soups and salads, if your child is willing, and don’t forget last night’s leftovers as easy lunch box filler.

Small changes can make a big nutritional difference, so Ferman recommends parents perform a “food makeover” and consider these options when packing school lunches and snacks:

Exchange higher fat lunchmeats with lower-fat deli meats such as turkey.

Instead of white bread, use whole grain breads such as wheat, oat or multigrain.

Ditch the mayonnaise. Instead, use light mayonnaise or mustard.

Switch fried chips and snacks with baked chips, air-popped popcorn, trail mix or veggies and dip.

Forget the fruit packaged in syrup. Opt instead for fresh fruit or fruit packaged in natural juices.

Substitute cookies and snack cakes with trail mix, yogurt or homemade baked goods such as oatmeal cookies or fruit muffins.

No fruit drinks or soda. Switch between milk, water or 100 percent fruit juice.

“Look at it this way,” she said. “If you would typically send a bologna sandwich on white bread, try a lean turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread. That’s less fat and more fiber and 255 fewer calories. Just by substituting mayonnaise with lettuce and mustard, that’s 34.5 fewer grams of fat. Over time that can make a difference and it goes a long way in teaching healthy eating habits.”