School Lunch Ideas

RVNAhealth wellness and healthy eating

The Question:

Help! I need creative lunch ideas for back to school. What do you recommend for a healthy school lunch? 

Meg’s Response:

Packing lunch for your child — every single day — can be a challenge. And a chore! You want to provide nutritious food to fuel your child’s brain, but at the same time, you want your child to actually eat what you pack, right?

Here are my tips for healthy school lunches:

  • Get your child involved: Make a back-to-school trip to the grocery store to pick out a few healthy school lunch items. Have your child pick one or two items from each section of the grocery store that he or she would enjoy in school lunch. If you leave the store with 2 fruits, 2 veggies, 2 meat/bean foods, 2 dairy foods and 2 grain foods that your child enjoys, that will help to ensure that your child will enjoy what you pack.
  • Have fun: Use cookie cutters to cut foods into fun and appealing shapes. Not a creative type? Find fun, reusable lunch containers in bright colors that will make lunch seem more…. ENTERTAINING!
  • Go for the nibble tray: Instead of packing a sandwich, pack a nibble tray! Find a reusable container with lots of small compartments, and fill each compartment with something different. Kids love variety! Include cream cheese, hummus, SunButter, bean dip, salsa, guacamole and other fun dips and spreads along with fruits and veggies to dip. Add a baggie of whole wheat crackers or a slice of multigrain bread on the side for some healthy whole grains.
  • Don’t feel guilty about combining healthy convenient foods with foods that you prepare from home. What do I mean when I say that? It is ok to purchase items like individual portion hummus cups, guacamole, and bean dips and pair those with baby carrots, grapes, sliced cheese, sliced cucumber circles and some whole-grain crackers for a “snacky” lunch. These “short cuts” can help to provide a healthy – and quick to assemble – lunch. What other healthy, but convenient foods can you think of to add to school snacks and lunches?
  • Keep portion size in mind. Often times parents think their children aren’t eating enough fruits and veggies. Did you know that the portion size of fruits and veggies for preschoolers and elementary-aged children is 1 tablespoon per year of age? That’s right, so a 5-year old would only need about 4 whole strawberries for a serving a fruit and 10 carrot coins for a serving of veggies.
  • Try School Lunch: If there is a meal offered in the cafeteria that your child enjoys, let them buy lunch. It teaches your child how to navigate a public food setting, getting them ready for middle school, high school and college. It also gives your child practice communicating needs and preferences. While school lunches historically have had a reputation of being less than perfect, things have changed. Stop by the school cafeteria and check it out for yourself. And hey – it gives you a break from packing! Can’t beat that.
  • Great Nut-Free Options: Food allergies and intolerances are an additional consideration to be made for many families packing school snacks and lunches. Depending on the school’s policy, you may or may not be able to include peanuts and tree nuts. Here is a list of nut-free protein-rich foods that can be packed as a part of a healthy school lunch
    Hard-boiled egg
    Hummus and other bean dips
    Low Fat Greek Yogurt
    Low Sodium Deli Meat and Cheese roll-ups
    Sunbutter (sunflower seed) and Wowbutter (soy nut butter)
    Cubed grilled chicken
    Beans (chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, pink beans, white beans)
    Cottage Cheese

A Healthier Take on Summer BBQ

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Q:  We love hosting summer cookouts. How can we make our favorite barbecue foods healthier?

A:  To put a fresh and healthy spin on your cookouts, skip the hot dogs, hamburgers, cole slaw and potato salad for lighter options that are trending now. Another reason to lighten up? Without all those mayonnaise-based dressings, your food will stay safer outside on a hot day. Here are some ideas to keep you both healthy and safe:

Lighten Up and Foil Fat with a “Foil Pack”

Opting for grilling favorites that are lower in saturated fat than burgers and hot dogs is the way to start. Go for grilled chicken breasts or lean chicken sausage and a healthier salad on the side. One of my favorite prep methods is the foil pack. Wrap individual portions of meat and veggies in foil and toss on the grill.  A cool no-cook salad with zucchini noodles – also known as zoodles – adds a modern touch. Recipes below.

Healthy Hydration

While you’re at it, lighten up your drinks. Hydration is particularly important in the summer, but alcohol and sugary drinks aren’t thirst quenching and can even cause dehydration. If plain water isn’t your thing, try infusing your water or seltzer with flavor. Add fresh fruits like citrus, berries, and pineapple. Even better, use frozen fruit to both chill and infuse your drink. When you’re finished, the fruit will be defrosted, and you can eat it as a snack!

Safety First

To keep summer buffet foods safe, serve hot foods immediately and keep cool foods chilled (put a salad bowl over ice, for example). Cover food and clean and remove the serving utensils when not in use. As an extra measure, keep hand sanitizer handy so folks can clean up before digging in.

These simple swaps and precautions will keep you and your barbecue healthy and safe all summer. Enjoy!

Try these recipes at your next cookout!

Chicken, Tomato, Corn Packs

For each serving, cut a 12” piece of foil and place a boneless, skinless chicken breast, ½ cup grape tomatoes cut in half, ¼ cup corn kernels, and minced garlic to taste. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of avocado oil or canola oil, salt and pepper. Seal all sides of the foil and grill on high until the internal temperature is 170 degrees (approx. 20-25 minutes).

Caprese Zoodles

Toss 1 package of zoodles (found in the produce section of most grocery stores) with 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Let marinate for 15 minutes. Add 2 cups of cherry tomatoes cut in half, 1 cup of mozzarella balls, 1/4 cup of torn basil leaves, and 1 teaspoon dried oregano. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

Meg Whitbeck, MS, RD, is available for private consultations. For more information, contact RVNA at 203-438-5555.

Eating to Sleep

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Are You as Tired as We Are?!

The old concept that you can’t catch up on lost sleep is a dismaying one, particularly if you’re already a few months – or years! – behind.  Fortunately, time and attention can help reverse the course and side effects of sleep deprivation. Which is a good thing because sleep deprivation can lead to chronic weight issues, fatigue, brain fog, chronic pain, trouble fighting off illnesses, depression, anxiety and more. Not to mention dark circles and crabbiness.

Meg Whitbeck, MS, RDN, RVNA’s nutrition educator and registered dietitian has two young sons, ages 4 and 7, and – like many of us – has had her share of sleepless nights. Our question to Meg:  Can we eat our way to better sleep?

“Yes!” says Whitbeck. “Of course, diet alone won’t get you on a regular cycle of seven to nine hours of sleep per night, which is what you need to do to get your circadian rhythms back on track,” she adds, “but there are definitely dietary dos and don’ts that will help you along the way.”

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Eat Well: There’s no way around it. Nutritious meals rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean protein support good sleep. Feed your body what it needs and it will respond in kind.
  • Timing:  Digestion takes a back seat when we sleep, so be sure to give yourself at least two hours from your last main meal before hitting the hay. Going to bed with a full stomach can lead to acid reflux (heartburn) and subsequent tossing and turning.
  • Relax with a warm drink: Sipping on a beverage like herbal tea helps us relax and tames tension, which encourages a peaceful rest. Our body can fall asleep more readily when we are warm and cozy. Wouldn’t you agree?
  • Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol: Both disturb sleep cycles, so skip alcohol and late-day caffeine if you need a good night’s sleep. If a cocktail or glass of wine is on the agenda for your nightly social activities, abstain from alcohol for 2 hours before going to sleep to allow your body to process out some of that ethanol.
  • Sweet Dreams, just not sweet desserts:  If we have sweets before bed, we can literally jolt ourselves awake with a sugar rush, compromising our ability to fall and stay asleep. Avoid sweets in the evening and you will notice that your sleep quality improves.
  • Try a Supplement: Several supplements available on the market offer improved quality sleep. The top two are L-theanine, an amino acid, and the hormone melatonin. L-theanine, when taken in doses of about 200mg, provides a calming effect to most users. L-theanine is often suggested to reduce anxiety and promote more restful sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies make. It helps to regulate our circadian rhythms and help our bodies differentiate between day and night. It is by far and wide the most popular “sleep” supplement available. Melatonin can also be found in many foods, with grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and mushrooms topping the list. The thing is, there is no way to be sure that the melatonin that we take via supplement or are exposed to in our food actually gets absorbed into our bodies. The only way to know if it helps you? Try it. Please note that melatonin interacts with several medications, including blood pressure medications – so check with your doctor before you start taking it!