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With a new school year about to begin, here’s some advice for simple, healthy snacks and lunches

Ashley and Jenna DeNysschen are none too happy about starting a new school year next week, but they do look forward to at least one part of their upcoming experience: the lunches and snacks they pack with their mother.

Carol DeNysschen puts a premium on healthy foods – which usually happen to taste pretty good, too.

“It’s pretty basic: a sandwich, a fresh piece of fruit and water with a couple drops of flavoring. They also get a treat. They love crackers or a crunchy granola bar,” said DeNysschen (pronounced De-NATION), a registered dietitian and associate professor in the Dietetics and Nutrition Program at SUNY Buffalo State.

She has found a kindred spirit near the family’s Orchard Park home in Alice Clarkson, the produce team leader at Orchard Fresh market who sends her teenage sons, Max and Luc, off to school in East Aurora with many of the same foods as 10-year-old Ashley and 8-year-old Jenna.

“They’ve been raised this way their entire lives,” Clarkson said of her sons. “They know going to the garden and getting something. They don’t look around the house for packaged things.”

A growing body of research shows that children who exercise and eat healthy foods, including during the school day, tend to perform better academically and are less likely to battle obesity as they grow. But many parents can find it daunting during a busy school year to send children on their way with the right foods. That’s why we asked Clarkson and DeNysschen to provide some of their best tips.

1. Involve your kids: Take your children shopping, search out healthy options and let them help with the cooking, Clarkson and DeNysschen advised. In the DeNysschen household, one night the girls help make and pack their sandwiches and mom takes care of the rest when it comes to school snacks and lunches. The next night, mom handles the sandwiches and the girls handle the other food duties.

“If you teach kids how easy it is to cook with simple ingredients, and if you do it together, it becomes an event,” Clarkson said. “The TVs turned off and the phones are put in a basket by the door, so you enjoy each other. Part of the fun is creating a meal.”

2. Keep it simple: “If you keep their lunches basic, it’s not difficult to find the time,” DeNysschen said. “To get a nice Tupperware container and cut up fruit takes no longer than going to a grocery store and buying a packaged snack.”

Clarkson fills small plastic bags for her kids with vegetables that include sugar snap peas, carrots, pepper sticks or slices of zucchini topped with crushed pepper. “They grab and go, and they’re done,” she said. “It’s easy, and it’s real food.” If you don’t have time, area grocers package fruits and vegetables to eat on the fly, Clarkson said, “so there’s no excuse.”

3. Think whole: Read labels to limit sugar and salt, Clarkson said, and always choose a whole sugar over a processed one. Pure cane sugar, honey or agave are better choices than high fructose corn syrup or any type of fructose.

“Staying with something that occurs naturally, it’s going to be processed by your body much more easily,” Clarkson said. “What it boils down to, especially with your kids, is trying to stay away from anything processed. You want to give their bodies fuel that it needs to get through the day. For example, an apple has exactly what your body needs to get through probably six hours. It’s about 100 calories. It’s got enough sugar where you’ll get a burst of energy. It has fiber, so your kids are going to eat the entire thing and feel full. And Mother Nature gives you everything you need for a packaged, healthy snack. Forget about opening a bag of chips. An apple comes in a skin, bananas have a peel.”

4. Think local: DeNysschen, often with her daughters in tow, is a frequent shopper at farmers’ markets in East Aurora and Orchard Park, as well as health food stores that include the Lexington Food Co-op and Orchard Fresh. The Clarksons also have another destination: the sprawling garden on their family farmland in Colden.

The coming weeks are the best time of year to get fresh local food. At least half the produce at Orchard Fresh, for instance, will come from upstate New York farms, many from within five miles of the North Buffalo Street store. Local shopping generally means fresher products with fewer, or no, additives or modifications for shipping, and is better for the environment because of lower transportation costs. It also helps local farmers, said Clarkson, including several who respond to and interact directly with many of their customers.

5. Plan ahead: “I plan my weeks on the weekends,” DeNysschen said. “I go to the store and get sandwich material. I make sure we get enough fruit so the girls can have fruit for snacks. The night before school, I always have their lunches packed so we’re not running around in the morning, and I usually do it when I’m making dinner. If I’m cutting up fruit for dessert, I throw some in a container for them. It’s much easier that way.”

The best of healthy food planners also will think about how to use the local harvest bounty months from now. Clarkson will be among those at local food stores this fall who teach canning. Her first “Alice’s Big Time Canning Class” will be scheduled soon for September. See for details.

6. Teach your children well: “When you’re packing healthy lunches, you’re forming good habits for your kids,” DeNysschen said. “Once they’re grown and get out of the house, they’re on their own. If you haven’t taught them what a healthy lunch looks like, they’re going to go to a fast food place.”

When it comes to this time of year, there are all sorts of lessons parents can teach their kids, for example, when DeNysschen reminded her daughters it usually only takes a day or two to start adjusting to a new school year.

“But,” said youngest Jenna, who will start fourth grade at Windom Elementary School, “then it takes so long to get out of it.”


See related stories on healthy eating, Pages 2, 10, 16