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Pack a healthy lunch kids can appreciate

With childhood obesity declared a national epidemic, the pressure is on parents to pack school lunches loaded with fitness fuel and not just kid-pleasing sugar.

But as many parents have learned, saying "it's good for you" can make the food you're presenting even less welcome.

Here are some tips from experienced parents and nutrition specialists on packing relatively healthy lunches your kids won't hate.

*Know your child's limits. Sometimes students have 20 minutes to eat lunch. If a container is difficult to open, or they're not likely to peel an orange with small fingers, that food will likely be wasted. Use containers like zip-top bags or precut fruit to compensate.

*Variety is your ally in getting kids to eat well. Rather than a sandwich and cookies, try an assortment of four or five foods -- like carrot sticks and a small container of hummus, half a cup of grapes, a half dozen whole-wheat crackers -- to mix it up.

*For sustaining a nutritional mix, include servings of at least three of the five food groups: fruits (apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, berries); vegetables (sliced cucumbers, baby carrots, pickles, celery sticks, bell pepper strips, cherry tomatoes); dairy (low-fat milk, cheese sticks, cheese cubes, yogurt); grains (pita bread, bagels, granola bars, crackers, pretzels); and lean protein (nuts, beans, hummus, leaner cold cuts such as turkey, tuna, veggie burgers).

*You don't have to ban packaged treats completely. But to help them learn that lunch means more than sugar, offer items like mini-sized candy bars, cookies and snack cakes sparingly. Try to keep them as a treat or reward, not a regular part of every lunch.

*Conquer pickiness by getting eaters involved in their lunch early. Get them to help you make a list of things they'll eat that fit your nutrition standards. Let them help you shop for the food, repackage it as necessary back home, and participate in assembling lunches before school. The more you train your children to do with their school lunches, the more they can take over as they grow older.

*Keep cool things cool and hot things hot. A frozen drink box, hopefully 100 percent juice, can go from cooling pack to cooling drink if it thaws in time. (You'll have to experiment.) To send soup, stew or other hot food in a Thermos, fill it with piping hot water, wait a minute, then empty it before filling with food. It'll stay warm longer.

*Especially for younger students, go through their lunchbox when it returns to learn about what actually happened at lunchtime. Ask your children how their lunch was. There's no perfect way to learn what they're actually eating, what they're trading and what they're just throwing away. But if you don't start trying to get that information, you'll definitely remain in the dark.


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