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Is Your Kid's School Lunch A Nutritional Time Bomb?

Aug 17, 2007
It's back to school time, and all across the country millions of kids are experiencing their first day of school after a long, lazy summer. Unfortunately for many of America's children, few school supply lists address what may be the most important school supply of all: a healthy lunch.

It's difficult, if not impossible, to turn on the television or radio without being bombarded with news about the American obesity epidemic. Close to two-thirds of adults in the United States are either overweight or obese, a startling reality made even more disheartening by the fact that child obesity rates are catching up fast. "Recent statistics indicate that 15.5 percent of 6 to 19 year olds and 10.4 percent of 2 to 5 year olds in the United States are overweight. The prevalence is even higher among non-Hispanic blacks (23.6 percent) and Mexican Americans (23.4 percent)" (source: Amanda Gardner, HealthDay Reporter).

"In the last 10 years alone, the number of children and adolescents diagnosed with type 2 diabetes has increased several-fold. A decade ago, we rarely diagnosed type 2 diabetes in children and teens. Now, we are seeing an epidemic increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes in youth. The jump is phenomenal" (source: Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical Society Nov/Dec 2004).

From the largest high schools to the tiniest elementary schools in the nation, overweight students can be found at public schools and private schools alike. So what's causing this dramatic rise in childhood obesity?

The answer is the same as it is for adults: kids are eating too much of the wrong foods and at the same time aren't getting enough exercise. "Lifestyles are clearly a contributing factor. The proportion of students attending physical education classes every day has declined from 41.6 percent in 1991 to 29.1 percent in 1999. And almost 80 percent of children aren't eating the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day" (source: Amanda Gardner, HealthDay Reporter)

Aside from pulling your kids out of the school district altogether and starting up a home school program, there are some basic steps you can take to put children's health back on the report card.

First of all, encourage your child to be more active. Although many summer school programs involve sufficient exercise and physical education, the regular school year may not. If your kid isn't getting at least an hour of active playing each day, then it's a good idea to supplement their exercise program at home. This can be as simple as going for a family bicycle ride after dinner or playing tag in the backyard.

It's also a good idea to monitor what your child is eating at school. About the time your youngster reaches middle school age, they'll find vending machines at school stuffed with kid snacks of varying nutritional value. Even if you can't control what they buy once they're at school, you can certainly regulate how much money they take with them each day.

Finally, it's important to control what goes into your child's school lunchbox. Loaded down with sugar, fat and salt, many lunchboxes are sorely lacking in fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Here's how to pack a healthy school lunch that's sure to please:

1) Permit only milk or 100 percent juice for lunchbox drinks. Beware of 'juice' drinks that contain very little juice and heaps of sugar.

2) When choosing a school lunch main dish for kids, be it the ever-popular sandwich or something more creative, use low-fat cheeses and meats. The majority of the saturated fat in children's diets comes from milk and cheese, and lunchmeats are often another dangerous source. Most grocery stores offer low-fat and fat free cheeses and meats for sandwiches, which when combined with 1 percent or fat free milk will dramatically lower the amount of artery-clogging saturated fat your child is consuming.

3) Include fruits and vegetables every single time you pack the lunchbox. A steady diet of produce reduces the risks of heart disease, cancer, blindness, stroke and, or course, obesity.

4) Choose 100% whole-wheat bread instead of white bread. Higher in fiber, whole wheat bread will make help your child feel full longer, as well as make him or her healthier.

5) Keep kid desserts to a minimum. All too often, children wolf down their dessert first and are later too full for vegetables. Consider including dessert just three times per week, or just as a treat on Friday.

Finally, ask your child what they'd like in their lunchbox! The quickest way to get an angry kid is to pack their lunch with healthy foods that they hate. Instead, give them a list of healthy foods that you are willing to put in their lunch, and let them choose. You may even consider bringing them along to the store with you so they can be part of the process of making healthy food selections.

Making smart food choices can be fun and exciting for children, allowing them to try new foods and set healthy habits for life. With some planning and a little effort, your kid's school lunch doesn't have to be a nutritional time bomb this year - or ever again!
About the Author
Tracie Johanson is the founder of Pick Up The Pace, a 30-minute exercise studio for women focusing on fitness, health and nutrition for maximum weight loss. Subscribe to our FREE weekly email newsletter, and receive a FREE weight loss e-book, just by going to http://www.letspickupthepace.com/ and clicking on the 'Newsletter' link.
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