For generations, American schoolchildren were taught to eat their way to the top of the “food pyramid” of dairy, vegetables, fruits and meats.
Now, kids are being given dramatically different advice: Follow the “plate.”
The old model gave starches such as rice, bread and cereal the king’s share at the base of the pyramid, while produce, proteins and dairy occupied smaller and smaller compartments.
Scramble that pyramid, nix all but a palm-sized portion of grains, add a super-serving of veggies, plus proteins and a side of milk, and you get the staples of a healthful school lunch, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for kids, issued in 2013.
The department’s “ChooseMyPlate” campaign recommends a half of each meal be devoted to fruits and vegetables, with another quarter each allotted to protein and grains, and a smaller serving of dairy suggested on the side.
Parents shopping for back-to-school lunch items can follow some steadfast rules that come with the plate: whole-wheat rather than white bread, lean meats rather than fatty cuts, and milk or water over sugary juices, to name a few.
But packing lunch with a nutritious punch is about more than shopping. It’s about variety, said Kaiser Permanente registered dietitian Maureen Crerar.
“We draw different nutrients from different sources,” she said. “If you’re careful with the added sugars and fats for the most part, and [the kids] are getting a sufficient amount of exercise – at least an hour a day – you shouldn’t have to worry too much about what they’re eating, other than that they get a varied diet.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study conducted between 2007 and 2010 found that 60 percent of children ages 1 to 18 didn’t meet USDA fruit intake recommendations, and 93 percent didn’t meet vegetable recommendations. More than a third of U.S. children are overweight or obese.
Even if parents can gather nutritionally sound ingredients and pack a healthful lunch sack, there’s the challenge of getting kids to eat it, said Brenda Ruiz, a local food advocate and chef at midtown restaurant Biba.
For many kids, it’s about presentation. If their friends are eating store-bought Lunchables, children may want something similar. The solution? Place whole-wheat crackers, low-fat cheese, cold cuts and produce in a compartmentalized Tupperware box, echoing the Lunchables layout, to make a healthy bento box.
Talking to your child about what he or she wants to eat, and discussing recipes with them or even cooking together, can help excite them about eating healthfully, Ruiz said.
“(My son) identified something he would like, and it was my job as a parent to interpret that into something that was healthy that I knew he would eat,” she said. “If we push (healthful food) on kids, then they’re the dork in the class with the funky salad. But if they take ownership of it, they’ll embrace it.”
Go for: Whole wheat pitas and sandwich breads or vegetable-infused wraps
Avoid: White bread, white rice, too-salty crackers
Some ideas: Tri-color pasta salad, veggie-filled spinach wraps, baked tortilla chips
Go for: Turkey and chicken or nuts, seeds and beans if meatless
Avoid: Fried meats, meats with skin, processed deli meats and salted jerkies
Some ideas: Hummus, bean dips, egg salad
Go for: Whole, seasonal fruits like apples, pears and bananas, dried fruits or 100% fruit juice
Avoid: Single serving fruit cups or fruit juices with added sugar
Some ideas: banana and peanut butter roll-ups, fruit smoothie, fruit as salad garnish
Go for: Colorful veggies in easy-to-eat format
Avoid: Over-salted canned or processed veggies
Some ideas: Veggie sticks, lettuce cups, produce-filled wraps
Go for: Low-fat milks, cheeses and yogurts
Avoid: Dairy products with extra sugar, butter or milk fat
Some ideas: String cheese sticks, milk jugs, yogurt dips
Note: Tips come from a combination of expert opinions, USDA guidelines and California Department of Public Health materials.