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Good nutrition can come in small brown bags

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Do you wonder where the nutritious lunches your children take to school end up? Are they tossed in the trash? Traded like a hot commodity? Or are they actually eaten?

Parents often struggle to pack school lunches that are nutritious, yet won't land in the trash can.

"It's a challenge," says Michelle Sokolov, a registered dietitian with the Pediatric Healthy Lifestyle Program at Sutter Memorial Hospital.

As part of her involvement with the Healthy Lifestyle Program, Sokolov frequently works with parents and children, helping families to develop healthy eating habits and meet weight-loss goals. We turned to Sokolov for some tips on planning and packing school lunches.

Q: If you send children off to school with a home-packed lunch, how likely are they to actually eat that lunch?

A: Studies estimate that one in four lunches ends up in the trash. Frequently, items in the lunch are traded with other kids.

Q: What can parents do to make sure kids eat lunches instead of trading or tossing them out?

A: Let the kids help plan what goes into the lunch. Children are more apt to eat lunches if they help pick them out to begin with.

Q: How do you encourage kids to make good choices?

A: Make planning lunch an adventure. Explain the food guide pyramid to them and let them help make a weekly menu. Kids like to be involved in planning their nutritional choices.

Q: What about peer pressure? If other kids are eating high-sugar snacks or lunches that are high in fat, won't your kids want the same thing?

A: When children learn why nutrition is important and they are able to make a connection between good nutritional choices and being healthy, they become advocates for nutrition. They are proud of making good nutritional choices, and they sometimes like to point out when their friends aren't making such good choices.

Q: What about treats?

A: If lunches are made up of healthy foods, the occasional treat is not a bad thing, and kids can help plan for those treats, too.

Q: What about variety?

A: It would be best to eat from each food group daily, although there are times when this is not practical. When this happens, try to eat some foods from the missing food group the next day.

Q: Is it better to pack a lunch for your child or let him or her buy lunch at school?

A: I encourage parents to ask the school if they participate in the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children. It is a federal program initiated in 1996. The program requires that schools provide a third of the daily calorie and nutrition needs for kindergarten through sixth grade and that they comply with USDA dietary guidelines.

In recent years, there has been a big focus on trying to make school meals healthier. For example, lunch might include chicken nuggets, but instead of fried nuggets, they are baked. Or the lunch might be made with low-fat cheese.

Overall, if a school participates in the School Meals Initiative, the lunches bought at school seem to have a better variety of foods than what most home-packed lunches contain.

Q: How do you determine how much food is appropriate?

A: If you use the food pyramid as a guide, the younger grammar school children fall into the lower serving suggestions. A middle school child falls into the middle range and a high school student, if he or she is active, would be on the upper end.

Overweight children really need to see a dietitian to determine what their calorie needs are and to work out meal plans. When parents restrict foods in an effort to help children lose weight, that only leads to food battles.

Q: But what if other family members do not have a weight problem? How do you control calories for one child and not for another?

A: Healthy eating is for everyone. The occasional treat is for everyone. What you and your child need to understand is that treats shouldn't be a daily thing or a habit. It helps when parents are good role models for their children.

Q: What would you consider to be a healthy school lunch?

A: When packing a lunch, try to provide at least three of the five food groups. Five choices would be ideal. Always add some protein in the lunch. A mixture of carbohydrate, protein and fat will provide long-lasting energy for the rest of the school day so kids can concentrate and have energy for after-school activities.

In the book "Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids," authors Jodie Sheid and Mary Catherine Mullen say that a good lunch provides one selection from each of five food groups. It contains no more than one item from the fats, oils and sweets category of the pyramid. It includes high-fiber foods like whole-grain breads, cereals, vegetables, fruits, dry beans, nuts and seeds. The fat content has been reduced. Most important, your child actually eats the lunch.

Q: We've been hearing so much about childhood obesity. What is causing this to be such a problem?

A: There are a variety of factors, including environmental and personal choices. It is definitely related to lack of physical activity surrounding television and computer time. And in the summertime, that is even more of a problem.

Q: Which is more important, good nutrition or physical activity?

A: Both are important. It takes a balance between intake and output. Besides making good nutrition choices, parents need to encourage children to be more active. Again, being a good role model helps.

Q: Can packing a good lunch help with obesity problems?

A: It's a start, but kids are not overweight just because of lunch. What I see often is a lot of hidden sugar packed into lunch in such things as fruit snacks and juice drinks. It's better to pack a water bottle or let kids buy milk.

Q: When you were in school, what did you pack in your lunch?

A: I didn't start taking my lunch until I was in high school. Then I almost always took a turkey sandwich and an apple. And I bought milk. I was one of those healthy eaters from the very beginning. My mother encouraged that, which is why I think letting kids get involved in their own nutritional choices is very important.

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