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How to Pack the Perfect Lunch

Concerned that the sludge they're slopping at the cafeteria is ruining your kid's appetite and maybe even his waistline?

Then it's time to take control of the midday meal by packing a heroic lunch for your loved ones each morning. If the kids are home for a holiday, it's a great foudnation for a lunch that will fuel them up without a sugar rush you'll be left dealing with all afternoon.

If you pack your kid's lunch, not only will you ensure optimum nutrition, you'll also be able to cater to his likes and dislikes, which means there's a darn good shot he'll actually eat this lunch, rather than leaving it behind in the rush to get to the playground.

A good lunch is formed around a dependable main course and punctuated with a solid supporting cast of nutrient-packed sides, a low- or no-calorie drink, and even a little treat. Mix and match like you would when ordering Chinese takeout—though, unlike sweet-and-sour goop, this stuff is actually good for your kid. Master the mix and your kid will be the envy of every mystery-meat-eating student in the second grade.

Dependable Drink

This is a high-stakes decision that few parents really think about. Considering that many kids' beverages have nearly as much sugar per ounce as soft drinks, tossing the wrong drink in the lunchbox could translate into 3 to 5 extra pounds by the end of the school year. Drinks should be either zero- or low-cal (water, diet drinks), high in nutrition (milk, 100 percent juice), or both (tea). Here are the best picks, in descending order.

• Water
• Lightly sweetened iced tea, like Honest Tea
• Low-fat milk
• 100 percent juice drinks
• Low-calorie kids' drinks, like Minute Maid Fruit Falls and Tropicana Fruit Squeeze

Sturdy Anchor

Avoid a lunch built on refined carbohydrates, as the intake of quick-burning carbs will leave your kid with an energy and attention deficit for the rest of the day. Focus instead on protein, fiber, and healthy fats that will help keep your kid satisfied, keep his metabolism running high, and provide some important nutrients, too.

• Turkey or roast beef and Swiss on wheat bread (sans mayo, but loaded with produce, if you can get away with it)
• Sliced ham, cheese, and Triscuits
• PB&J (made on whole wheat bread with a pure-fruit jelly like Smucker's Simply Fruit)
• Thermos of hot soup
• Grilled chicken breast
• Hard-boiled eggs
• Tuna or cubed chicken tossed with light mayo, mustard, celery, and carrot

Sides with Substance

Only 1 in 4 kids consumes the recommended 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, so pack a lunch sans produce and you're missing a golden opportunity to slip some much-needed nutrients back into their diets. As long as you have at least 1 piece of fruit or a serving of vegetables, adding a second crunchy snack is fine.

• Carrot sticks
• Celery sticks
• Apple slices with peanut butter
• Fruit salad
• Banana, pear, peach, or any other whole fruit
• Olives
• Almonds and raisins (mixed 50–50)
• Triscuits
• Small bag of pretzel sticks or Goldfish pretzels
• Baked! Lay's

Low-Impact Treat

You've gotta give them something they can brag to their friends about, right? A treat should have no trans fats, less than 12 grams of sugar, and no more than 100 calories. If you can eke some extra nutrition out of it, all the better.

• Fruit leather
• Squeezable yogurt
• Low-fat, low-sugar chocolate pudding
• Sugar-free Jell-O
• Rice Krispies Treats
• A square of chocolate

Eat This, Not That!
Inspired by The New York Times best-selling book series, Eat This, Not That! is a brand that's comprised of an award-winning team of journalists and board-certified experts, doctors, nutritionists, chefs, personal trainers, and dietitians who work together to bring you accurate, timely, informative, and actionable content on food, nutrition, dieting, weight loss, health, wellness, and more. Read more about Eat This
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