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What's in your child's lunchbox?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, August 12, 2010; GZ13

As we slide all too swiftly toward the school year, I wanted to write a handy guide to packing nutritious school lunches. I know firsthand how tricky it is to craft meals that provide the right the number of calories and mix of food groups -- and that kids will actually eat.

Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, shared this lunch-planning template based on the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans: The meal should have a fruit, a vegetable, two servings of grain, two ounces of meat or beans, a serving of dairy and a smidge of healthful fat. The guidelines suggest seeking foods low in sugar, salt and "solid" fats (those that, like butter, are solid at room temperature).

Giancoli also steered me toward MyPyramid.gov, a USDA tool that shows people how to incorporate the dietary guidelines into their lives. The site includes a menu planner that, once you register (for free), allows you to adjust for variables such as age, sex, height, weight and level of physical activity. The site can be a bit frustrating (I couldn't find raw green beans, for instance), but playing with it helps you get the hang of putting together a decent meal.

Here are some ideas for three age groups. For extremely active kids, you'll want to provide more food, but not in the form of sugary, salty snacks, sodas or sports beverages. Instead, choose extra items that will help meet the day's food-group needs: another piece of fruit, a second sandwich.

And you'll want to invest in an insulated lunchbox or bag and a freezer pack so food will stay cool till lunchtime. Vegetarians, vegans and others who follow special diets should tool around on MyPyramid to find options that meet their nutritional needs.

Ages 14-18

The dietary guidelines say a sedentary teenage girl should have 1,800 calories per day and an active one up to 2,400. For teen boys, that range is 2,200 to 3,200. Lunch should account for roughly a third of those calories, Giancoli says: Maybe 650 for her, 900 for him.

Sample lunch: Teens might enjoy something more sophisticated than a sandwich. Try a handful (12 crackers) of whole-wheat Triscuits with four one-inch cubes of low-fat cheddar or Swiss cheese, three-quarters cup of chicken vegetable soup, a cup of cantaloupe balls, a serving (about a third of a cup) of egg salad made with a hard-boiled egg and a tablespoon of regular mayonnaise, and a cup of reduced-sodium V-8 juice. That covers the food groups for about 690 calories.

Cafeteria advice: Your teen may balk at carrying lunch to school, preferring to buy what's offered in the cafeteria. Most districts post secondary-school lunch menus on their Web sites; check them out with your teen and talk about making smart selections in the food line.

Rather than tell your teen he can't choose certain items, steer him toward the more healthful ones. If a salad bar or taco bar is available, it's easy to make a meal that contains vegetables (go for a rainbow of colors), fruit, meat or beans, dairy (but go easy on the cheese) and whole grains (a corn taco). Some schools have vegetarian and vegan options; explore these with your teen, as they often are the most healthful choices.

Ages 9-13

A sedentary preteen girl needs 1,600 calories a day, while an active girl needs up to 2,200. A boy's range is 1,800 to 2,600. Divide by three!

Sample lunch: A sandwich made with two pieces of whole-grain bread, two slices of deli turkey, a dab of mayonnaise and a slice of cheese. Add an apple and a cup of baby carrots, plus one or two tablespoons of reduced-fat dressing and some reduced-fat milk (or calcium-fortified soy or almond milk). That's about 630 calories.

Cafeteria advice: Many districts offer the same meals to middle-schoolers as to high-schoolers, posting menus under a "secondary school" heading. Investigate those menus with your tween.

Ages 4-8

A sedentary little girl needs just 1,000 calories a day; an active one needs up to 1,800. For boys, it's 1,400 to 2,000. That makes for some tiny lunches!

Sample lunch: The classic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich is a great choice if you use two slices of whole-grain bread, two tablespoons of peanut butter and a tablespoon of reduced-sugar jelly. Pair it with a half-cup of pineapple chunks, a half-cup of celery sticks and a cup of reduced-fat milk. That's about 525 calories.

Cafeteria advice: Elementary-school menus tend to offer fewer options than those for older kids. The daily special, often macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets, isn't always the best choice. Encourage your child to go for the everyday option, which typically features simple items such as a PB&J, a cheese stick, fresh fruit or fruit cups, vegetables and milk.

* * *

These are just examples; you'll want to mix things up so your kids don't get bored. And once in a while, says Jatinder Bhatia, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, let your kids splurge on a treat that doesn't fit neatly into one of the slots. "We are human beings," Bhatia says. "We need variety."

Just stick to the guidelines as often as possible, he says, and aim to balance out the food categories by the end of the week. "You don't have to balance every day."

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