Parents take their children to school each day with the confidence that they will learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

The big question: Will they eat their lunch?

Before school starts, many children make one of the most agonizing decisions of the year: picking a lunch box. For the rest of the year, parents agonize daily about what to put in it.

“Parents ask us for suggestions,” said Myra Mackey, a second-grade teacher at Blaney Elementary in Elgin. “We try to make healthy suggestions — foods low in sugar, pretzels, that kind of thing. And, a lot of fruit, of course.”

Healthy foods should be a priority, said Melanie Jordan, a clinical dietician at Baptist Medical Center. But you’ve also got to make it appealing to kids, who aren’t apt to eat food just because it’s good for them.

“People should be aware of fat, and avoid a lot of high-fat food,” Jordan said. “Have more fresh fruits and vegetables. Pack a banana, an apple, carrot sticks — even some dried fruit, like raisins.

“Kids like color and variety. So if you can have a sandwich with a red apple and orange carrot sticks, and something else colorful, younger kids accept it more.”

Variety is also important, Jordan said. Cut low-fat cheese in chunks, and put them in a plastic bag or container. Bran muffins and bagels are good ideas, especially if your child has an earlier lunch.

Include surprises. Box or bag lunches have a tendency to get boring, said Patty McDougall, owner of Happy Cookers, a Columbia catering business. Fight that by including a daily surprise, “Something that they’ll open the box and say, `Oh, look at this.’ ”

There are also ways to jazz up sandwiches, McDougall said. “Pita sandwiches are always good,” she said. Croissants, rolls, bagels and English muffins are other ways to turn ham, turkey or even peanut butter and jelly into unique treats.

But remember, McDougall said: If you’re packing refrigerated foods, keep them cool. Some lunch boxes are designed to do that. If your child’s isn’t, you can send small coolers or buy containers that keep food cold or hot.

Another trick is to freeze a juice pouch and pack it with the food. Rebecca Watts, from Tronco’s Catering, makes that suggestion to keep a taco salad cool.

Watts recommends the following as a different sort of lunch that kids enjoy. Take four plastic, sealable bags and label them 1-4. In the first bag, put shredded lettuce and cheese. In the second, chopped chicken or steak (whatever is leftover). In the third, salsa; and in the fourth, tortilla chips. Send a bowl, and tell your child to pour in the ingredients in order.

“They have fun doing that,” Watts said.

For dessert, send a graham cracker sandwich, with peanut butter, a “small dab” of chocolate syrup and some raspberry preserves.

And the frozen juice box or pouch will keep it all cool.

Teachers watch children frown when they find certain foods in their boxes or bags: Yogurt and raisins are among the most unpopular foods among her students, Mackey said.

Don’t forget the fruit. The most common lunches are peanut butter and jelly or ham sandwiches, chips and cookies, Mackey said. She doesn’t see much fruit.

“They love the canned fruit better than the fresh fruit,” Mackey said. “They like the tiny, small cans. They love the pudding cups you can buy.”

Some canned fruit has something the fresh stuff doesn’t: sugar. That’s why Jordan recommends fresh fruit. If you want canned fruit, look for the kind with no sugar.

“Kids like sweets,” Jordan said. “But I recommend for desserts, ginger snaps, vanilla wafers, fig bars, animal crackers . . . instead of chocolate chips; pretzels instead of potato chips, even popcorn.”

But make nothing taboo, she said. Once in a while, send peanut butter, even though it’s high in fat. And consider cutting the sandwich in animal shapes, for a bigger treat. “Even if it just remotely resembles an animal, they’ll be thrilled,” Jordan said.

Even an occasional bag of potato chips is OK, Jordan said.

“You want to train them that nothing is restricted,” she said. “But everything needs to be in moderation.”

One way to coerce children into eating the healthy fare is to get them involved in preparing or choosing their lunch, Jordan said.

“Get the child involved in the decision-making,” she said. “If you can, on the night before, say, `We have carrots or grapes, graham crackers or animal crackers.’ Get them involved with it. If they don’t feel like it’s something being put upon them, they’re more likely to eat it.”

And think variety. “If it looks different, it will be more interesting,” she said.

Jordan stresses the importance of teaching children good eating habits. She’s seeing more young children with high cholesterol and weight problems.

“We’re stressing with kids to get involved with meals and meal preparation,” Jordan said. “Whatever decisions you’re making, that’s going to influence with what they choose later on.”

Lezlie Patterson writes about education. Call her at 771-8308.

August 21, 1996  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 44
August 21, 1996  State (published as The State)  
Columbia, South Carolina
Page 48

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