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School lunches for the kids, by the kids

Bev Bennett
CTW Features

Busy parents can find it tempting to go with convenient but high in fat and sodium pre-packaged lunches for their school-age children. Making low-fat, nutritious lunches is time consuming, and all too often they end up in the lunchroom trash.

But nutrition experts suggest another tactic: Have children make their own lunches. Their argument is that even if it seems easier for parents to do it, the entire family will reap benefits when the child takes over.

“It works. Children get what they want; they learn nutrition and it takes the burden (of lunch preparation) off Mom,” says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, PhD, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

For Dayton mom Amanda Skiba, preparing food with her preschool daughter also is a way to bond.

“Cooking is such a great way to get in one-on-one time with your kids,” said Skiba, who keeps a food blog, stuffurface.wordpress.com.

And it teaches them skills they’ll need as they grow.

“Kids take pride in making things on their own,” Skiba blogged. “Helping to make the food they will eat is also a great way to get them interested in food and (they) will be likely to eat a larger array of foods.”

“Plus I think it is really important to involve your kids in preparing the food they eat,” she wrote. “They have to learn how to cook anyway and the more you cook together the more you can teach your children how to eat well, while bonding with them.”

However, parents will have to invest time and effort before handing over duties.

Children can’t be expected to make their lunches without guidance. Parents have to explain what a healthy lunch is, talk about foods to include and take a child’s preferences into account, according to Karen Weber Cullen, associate professor of pediatrics-nutrition, USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

And it’s never too early to start.

Sarah first started learning about the healthful components of a bag lunch when she was 7, according to her mother, Gazzaniga-Moloo.

“We talked about the different food groups and made a list of favorite foods in each group. I suggested things they might not have thought of, such as tomatoes,” says Gazzaniga-Moloo, instructor, nutrition and foods/dietetics, California State University, Sacramento.

Once she knew what Sarah preferred, the conversation turned to building a wholesome meal. It could be lean lunchmeat or peanut butter from the meat group; cucumber sticks as the vegetable and a fruit. Milk was available at school.

Gazzaniga-Moloo and her three children divide lunch responsibilities these days.

She’s in charge of keeping bag-worthy ingredients available. She keeps dried fruit and nuts in the cupboard in case she doesn’t have time to grocery shop. She also plans dinners to provide leftovers such as grilled chicken and pizza, to go into the next day’s lunch.

Her children, Sarah, now 15 and David, 12, make their own lunches. Alexander, 8, is in training.

The bonus, Gazzaniga-Moloo discovered, is that as her children got older they added foods they didn’t like before.

“David started adding different vegetables to his sandwiches. It empowers children to have a say in what they have for lunch,” she says.