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Eat This, Not That: Tips for balanced school lunches [+ a bonus recipe feature]

Just like that – the end of summer is nearing and it’s officially back-to-school season. It’s time to re-establish the weekday routine of homework, bedtime, the morning bustle and packing lunches.

For children and parents, deciding what’s for lunch can be a food fight. Creating lunches that are both healthy and appealing to a child can seem nearly impossible. Luckily, nutritious and delicious don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and there are many ways to make lunch fresh and fun.

Consider packing lunches the night before with your child. It allows them to be part of the preparation process, and makes for one less task in the morning.

Swapping out junk food and other sugar-loaded items for healthier alternatives will make the child’s lunch heartier, satiate their hunger longer, and keep them from having a sugar crash. With these subtle changes, many kids won’t even know they’re eating a “healthier” food! For example, instead of a bag of potato chips, substitute popcorn – which has significantly fewer calories and less fat. If pizza is on the menu, opt for thin crust – or, better yet, whole wheat or cauliflower crust. Add some veggie toppings and, all of a sudden, pizza is a much more health-conscious meal. Try switching out soda – one of the main culprits for child obesity – for sparkling flavored water. And, instead of a candy bar for dessert, which can cause a sugar high and subsequent crash, try throwing in dark chocolate, fruit or low-fat yogurt and granola.

If your child struggles to eat vegetables, try to work with them rather than forcing them to eat something. With the vast array of vegetables out there, have your child try a variety and work to find something they like.

Finding non-processed options at the grocery store can be tricky – but the less processed, the better. Processed foods tend to be high in sodium, sugar and fat, and just because a food is labeled “organic” or “natural” doesn’t mean it’s free of added sugars. Though canned vegetables and soups may seem like a great on-the-go option, they are typically high in sodium. Sandwich bread, pre-packaged lunch meat and even condiments also should be chosen carefully.

Though mildly processed foods can be OK in moderation, it’s best to make things from scratch at home so you can know exactly what ingredients are included.

According to Mary Beth Rudroff, a registered dietitian at St. Luke’s Hospital, one store-bought processed food to avoid is granola bars. Though they are marketed as a “healthy snack,” many store-bought granola bars are loaded with simple-carbohydrates and added sugars, which don’t satisfy hunger for long. If you see a long list of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients listed in the nutrition facts, that’s a sign that it’s a processed food you want to avoid.

“They can have a lot of sugar, and a better solution is to make them at home,” Rudroff said, of granola bars. “It allows [children] to be involved in the process and is a healthier alternative.”

If your child buys lunch at school, talk to them about making healthy choices. Teach them the basics of a balanced lunch, the various food groups and the value of consuming things in moderation. ChooseMyPlate.gov offers resources to parents to help them educate their children about eating a balanced diet. The website also provides information on what foods are grown in specific states to help Americans eat healthy and locally.

RECIPE: No Bake Energy Bites

Courtesy of Wellness For The Win food blog, produced by Registered Dietitian Shanna Hutcheson [wellnessforthewin.com]

These super-simple, No Bake Energy Bites are sure to please even the pickiest of eaters. They provide the long-lasting energy and focus needed to get through the day, and they’re a guilt-free way to satisfy that sweet tooth! Coming in at just 90 calories each, these bites are comprised of nutritious ingredients that are a good source of healthy fats, protein andfiber. These No Bake Energy Bites make for a great addition to any child’s lunch – and don’t forget to keep a few at home for yourself!

No Bake Energy Bites, courtesy of Wellness For The Win food blog by Shanna Hutcheson, RD LD [wellnessforthewin.com]

Makes 20-25 bites.


1 cup old-fashioned oats

1/2 cup natural creamy peanut butter

1 tablespoon hemp seeds

2/3 cup original Grape Nuts cereal*

1/2 cup organic ground flax chia blend [or ground flax seed]

1/3 cup pure raw honey

1/3-1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

*Note from Shanna: “The original recipe calls for coconut flakes; I personally am not a big fan of coconut and the Grape Nuts give an extra crunch, as well as some extra protein and fiber. However, if you’re a big coconut fan, go for it! You could also probably substitute unsweetened dried cranberries here.”


• Combine all ingredients in a medium to largemixing bowl and stir to combine.

• Place bowl in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to chill.

• Remove from refrigerator and form into one-inch balls, or desired size.

• Store in refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week.

For healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizer and snack recipes for the whole family that don’tcompromise on flavor, visit Wellness For The Win online at wellnessforthewin.comor on Instagram at @wellnessforthewin.

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