While school lunches might be healthier and more balanced than ever, can a parent be sure just how much of those meals their children are consuming?
With school beginning in the area next week, Courtney Brooks, clinical dietitian at Midtown Medical Center in Columbus, says one way to make sure a child is eating properly at lunch is by preparing meals at home to take to school and letting children take part in the preparation.
"If a child gets a good lunch at school but doesn't eat it, well, that sort of defeats the purpose," she said.
Wesley Delbridge, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said on the organization's website that children will be seeing more fruits and vegetables and whole grain-rich foods in their school lunches. They also will consume less salt and sugar.
Delbridge said these healthier meals will be sure to get students the nutrients they need to perform well in school and have the energy to be active and participate in sports and to also grow into healthy adults
But only if they eat them.
"For parents who want to prepare lunches at home, there are plenty of great recipes online," Brooks said.
She said children can be involved in picking out recipes, going to the store to find ingredients, and helping fix the meal.
According to Brooks, the trip to the market can be a good time to get children interested in trying a new fruit or vegetable.
Preparation of the lunch is best done the night before so there is no rush as family members get ready for school and work in the morning.
Brooks said that assures time to eat a good breakfast, still the most important meal of the day.
"You can make lunches with different themes," she said. "There can be a cultural theme or a color theme, just about anything to make the meal interesting. A Mexican theme could include a healthy tortilla with some beans."
She said there are ways to bring some change into the meal of a child who likes to eat the same thing every day.
"A child might like to have peanut butter every day," she said. "Well, you can make a peanut butter sandwich with a slice of apple or banana in the sandwich for a little variety. It's a good opportunity to get a child to try almond butter."
The same might be done with slipping fruits and vegetables into some tuna.
Brooks, a graduate of Columbus High School and Georgia Southern University, suggested yogurt as a dessert rather than a cookie or cake.
"Some of the yogurt tastes like ice cream," Brooks said.
To make the meal healthy, whole grain foods must be used.
"There is more fiber and nutrients," Brooks said. "The whole grains take longer to digest, fueling children throughout the school day."
Lunches prepared at home need to be low in saturated fats.
Lean meat and skinless poultry should be used. Brooks said cheese provides needed calcium.
Brooks said preparing parfaits and smoothies are a good idea for a sweet treat. They can serve as ice pack in the lunchbox as they thaw out a bit by when it is time for lunch.
Asked about good fats she mentioned nuts and avocados.
When it comes to drinking, water is No. 1 for her. She said soda should not be part of a meal. "It is a lot of sugar," she added. "It is empty calories. It fills you up, and you don't eat."
She said fruit juices are not much better and are not a substitute for fruit.
"We must teach good eating habits early," Brooks said.
She said her mother used to put a note in her lunch every day with a message, such as "I love you."
A good treat is a freezer smoothie made with fruit. Not only is it fun to eat but they make for a great ice pack for lunches. The smoothies thaw during the day and are softer for lunch.
An article in Woman's Day suggested the way to make sure the lunch goes to the stomach and not the trash is to pack it with purpose.
As Brooks suggested, the article said bright colors every day increase the "wow factor" in the lunch, especially when the color comes from all-natural foods.
It also suggested using cookie cutters to pare down the size of a sandwich and also make it more interesting by having the sandwiches in different shapes. This can also be done with fruit and cheese, using a melon baller to create small spheres.
The article also suggested choosing easy-to-eat foods because while an adult may not mind peeling an orange or biting into an uncut sandwich, children do at a time when they are more interested in socializing than eating. One suggestion given was pizza cut into small squares or cut up pita bread with hummus.
"Children love finger foods," Brooks said.