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What food is best for kids heading off to school?

By Alice Fabbre, Special to the Tribune

August 7, 2013

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Back-to-school time is just around the corner, and that means your child will soon be running out the door to catch the bus and waiting in cafeteria lines for lunch. We talked to Toni Havala, a dietitian for Aramark food service at Edward Hospital in Naperville, about ways to make sure your child is getting the right start to the day and eating right at lunch. Here is an edited transcript:

Q: We all know breakfast is the most important meal of the day. What are some good ways to get your student's day started before heading off to school?

A: Just make sure that your child has a breakfast that includes a little bit of protein. That could be peanut butter, eggs or even turkey deli meat. Having a little bit of protein in your breakfast is really important, even two low-fat string cheeses. That's so much better than going out the door with nothing to eat. Also a little bit of carbs like fruit or a whole-grain cereal like Cheerios. The best combination is a healthy protein and a healthy carb together. That's a complete and balanced breakfast that is going to give your kids more of a long-lasting energy.

Q: What are some of your favorite "on-the-go" options for students who don't have time to sit down for breakfast?

A: I like it when kids and their families make up little bags of homemade trail mix. You can mix up a quarter cup of nuts, three-quarter cups of whole-grain cereal and a tablespoon of dried fruit. It's a complete meal, and the kids can take it and eat it on the bus.

A banana taco (also is good). Take a whole-grain tortilla, smear a little peanut butter on it and throw a banana in the middle.

Or just doing a couple of low-fat string cheeses with whole-grain crackers is going to give you that healthy protein and carb mix. These are all great options and so much better than skipping breakfast.

Q: We can't be there to make sure our child grabs, let alone eats, those fruits and vegetables from the school cafeteria lunch line. So what are some things we can do to help encourage them to make healthy choices at lunch?

A: Depending on the age of the child, you appeal to their interest and their reference point. If you have a preteen daughter who is really concerned about how she looks, you appeal to how fruits and vegetables can make your hair more shiny and your skin clearer. If it's a child who is involved in athletics, you appeal to the fact that fruits and vegetables are going to give them more energy and improve their performance in sports. Fruits and vegetables are the most critical food group in being healthy.

Q: Not all students opt for school lunches. If you are packing a lunch, what should you include?

A: A common mistake I find is we get a lot of convenience snack carbs like Goldfish crackers or the 100-calorie snack packs. Make sure there's something that is going to fill them up and give them long-lasting energy rather than that short spike of energy that comes with chips and cookies. We need to have some healthy protein, and that could include some low-sodium turkey or ham in a sandwich, peanut butter or putting some humus on a bagel. You could even do tuna (if it's refrigerated). Tuna is a wonderfully healthy, low-fat protein.

Try to avoid the prepackaged meals because the cheese is high fat, the meats typically are high fat, and there's not a whole lot of nutrition in those lunches. You are much better off to make your own. And always make sure they have a fruit or vegetable in their lunch.

Q: What fruits and vegetables keep best in a lunch box or paper bag?

A: I think it always works nicely to have pieces of fruit like pears, apples or plums. They usually can make it through the day fairly well. Cut-up fruit in plastic containers are fairly handy. They are much more likely to eat it if it's been peeled and cut up. Bananas don't always make it in an appetizing form to lunch. Convenience is critical to kids.

The same deal for vegetables — baby carrots with individual humus packets. Kids tend to eat more vegetables when they have something to dip with it like a little bit of humus or some low-fat ranch.

Q: Do I need to put an ice pack in my child's lunch box or will that sandwich be OK as is for a few hours?

A: Usually in most temperature ranges that lunch is going to be OK. But when we get hit with these hot, hot temperatures, that locker now becomes over the temperature it should be, and the lunch is there for a couple of hours in the danger zone for bacterial growth. If it's 80 degrees or over, you want to have something in (the lunch box) to cool down any sort of meat.

Q: What are your favorite grab-and-go foods for a quick snack during the school day?

A: I love nuts, but the problem with nuts is allergies. As the students get older, I love nuts because they are high in protein, high in healthy oils and have a variety of vitamins and minerals. I find that kids really like the low-fat string cheese. Granola bars can run the gamut from a very healthy choice to unhealthy. In a granola bar, I'm looking for something with under 9 grams of sugar per serving and over 4 grams of fiber per serving.

Q: What did you pack in your children's lunch box when they were in school?

A: Variety, variety, variety. I would always have a fruit and/or a vegetable. I did a lot of whole-grain crackers and I would make my version of a Lunchable for them with some low-sodium meat and low-fat cheese. One of my children's favorite thing to do was to make a healthy soup and take it in a Thermos.