Thinking inside the box makes lunches healthier

Even though she's only 10 years old, Brianna Yu is already health conscious of what she eats.

When she brings a lunch to school, she packs it in a compartmentalized lunch box that's designed to remind children of the basic food groups.

"I usually pack a juice box, a sandwich, a snack and a fruit," says Yu, adding that her mother helps her pack lunches on occasion.

When she doesn't pack a lunch, she eats in the school cafeteria. But Yu likes being involved in what Bartlett Elementary School serves for lunch as well. The fifth-grader serves on the school's youth advisory council, a group of students who test food products for the school's breakfast and lunch programs and promote general wellness through various contests and campaigns.

"We test new foods for our school menu to see which we should put on it and which ones we shouldn't," she says. "We think about if it tastes good, how it looks, how the texture is and then we do the total score."

Elgin School District Unit 46 has youth advisory councils in most of its schools, says Claudie Phillips, director of food services for the district. While all of the meals served in school cafeterias must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, the district believes that giving students input in what they eat is important.

"I think the more you involve them, the more health conscious they become," says Phillips. "That's why we involve them."

Though students have become more health conscious, they still like to eat the classic cafeteria favorites like pizza, ravioli and various finger foods, she says. In response, the district still serves their favorites but makes them healthier by focusing on the ingredients and how the food is prepared. For example, it has cut back on sodium, uses more vegetables when possible and deep fryers have been eliminated in its cafeterias.

"I can clearly say that the items we offer now are healthier than they were before," Phillips says.

While the majority of children eat cafeteria food, there are still those who bring their lunches from home, she says.

Just as the district involves its students in what they eat, it's not a bad idea for parents to do the same for those students who bring their own lunches to school.

Christine Palumbo, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a 20-year faculty member at Benedictine University in Lisle where she teaches nutrition to undergraduates, says that it's becoming more common for parents to involve their children in what they eat.

"I think a lot more moms are now encouraging their kids to help plan and make their lunches," says Palumbo, of Naperville. "It gives them some sense of control over what they eat. I'm a big fan of giving them life skills and this is one of those."

Today's parents are much more health conscious, often buying organic foods and meats without antibiotics, she says. That's why many parents are choosing to make their children's lunches at home on occasion. While brown paper bag lunches containing a sandwich and a bag of chips can still be seen in school cafeterias, they're becoming a blast from the past.

A growing trend for home-packed lunches focuses around the "Bento-style" lunch box, says Palumbo. Though many manufacturers besides Bento make them, they all have a common feature: multiple compartments for food.

By design, the framework of these lunchboxes brings to mind multiple food groups. It's easy to stock them with a variety of fruits, vegetables, dips, cheese cubes and main dishes - without the mess. They range in price from around $5 to $25, depending on size, design and the number of compartments.

"They make the food fun to eat, easy to pick up and you're not faced with a giant soggy sandwich," Palumbo says.

Compartmentalized lunchboxes make it easier for children to pack salads, wraps, leftover foods from last night's dinner and other foods that are not easily contained in a paper bag lunch.

Here are a few lunch box ideas provided by Palumbo:

Ethnic salad

Make a tabbouleh salad with tomatoes, finely chopped parsley, mint, onion and season it with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Mix it with bulgur (or couscous). Additional seasonings can include cinnamon and nutmeg. Serve with whole wheat pita bread, feta or goat cheese and a side of seedless grapes.

Healthy wrap

Wraps are a great way to combine different food groups into one meal. Try making a wrap by taking a whole wheat tortilla and spreading it with a little of cream cheese. Sprinkle it with a bit of chopped onion and your favorite seasonings. Top it with sliced turkey (or other lunchmeat) and lettuce. Roll up tightly in a jellyroll style, cut it in half and anchor each half with a toothpick. Serve with apple slices and carrot coins in same container.

Lunch from leftovers

Cut up leftover meat, like last night's pork tenderloin roast, into cubes and stick a toothpick in them to make it more like finger food. In another compartment, add some leftover veggies (like green beans) and whole wheat woven crackers (such as Triscuits). Don't forget to add some fruit like cubes of watermelon, cantaloupe or honey dew.

Courtesy of Christine PalumboA compartmentalized lunch box featuring a tabbouleh salad and whole wheat pita bread.
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