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Ryan Smith, Conemaugh Health System's executive chef, holds a low-fat turkey wrap loaded with carrots, tomatoes, raisins and lettuce. It's a healthy choice for a student's lunch. Photo by John Rucosky/ The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, PA.

By TOM LAVIS

TLAVIS@TRIBDEM.COM

Packing a child’s lunch box is probably one of the healthiest ways for parents to ensure that their school-aged children eat correctly.

Most kids don’t know how to pick a healthy lunch or are not inclined to do so because of all the other tempting offerings.

While the National School Lunch Program sets forth guidelines for menus that meet recognized standards for nutritional content, the challenge to parents is serving an appetizing lunch that their kids will eat.

Tonya Spada-Dixon, registered dietitian and clinical nutritional manager at Memorial Medical Center, says childhood obesity is rampant and that eliminating unhealthy, processed foods from a child’s diet is imperative.

“There are so many healthy alternatives that are just as easy to substitute,” Spada-Dixon said.

“We live in such a fast-paced society that students and parents must work together to achieve a balanced, healthy lunch.”

Leann John, clinical dietitian at Somerset Hospital, said it’s important that a school lunch provides one-third of the nutrition a child needs in a day.

“That includes calories primarily coming from carbohydrates and also protein and fat,” John said. “Equally important, the lunch must contain one-third of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals needed.

“For some children and adults, lunch may be the first meal of the day.”

The average school-age child needs 2,200 calories each day.

“If a child doesn’t eat the well-balanced lunch provided by the school, the only alternative for a parent is to give the student something he or she will eat.”

John offered a menu that would fulfill the dietary needs of a student.

The boxed lunch would contain a ham-and-swiss cheese sandwich, one-half pint of low-fat milk, a small apple or fruit of choice, one cup of baby carrots or vegetable of choice and a whole-grain granola bar.

“The emphasis is on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats,” John said.

Spada-Dixon said it’s never to early to involve a child in helping to make healthy food choices.

“Avoid high-fat lunch meat sandwiches,” she said. “A good alternative would be a tortilla roll-up that includes low-fat turkey or low-fat ham, combined with shredded lettuce, shredded carrots, some raisins and low-fat ranch dressing.

“One of these wraps covers each food group.”

Another easy meal would be a salad that contains mandarin oranges or grilled chicken.

“It’s one-stop eating,” Spada-Dixon said.

“Add a tiny box of raisins, some baby carrots placed in a sandwich bag and a single serving of yogurt and a parent has a well-balanced and easy meal.”

When it comes to a beverage, water or milk are two excellent choices.

Freezing a small bottle of water instead of sugar-laden juice serves a dual purpose. By lunch time, the bottle has served to hydrate a child and keep the lunch cold.

“Insulated lunch bags are inexpensive and keep food fresh,” John said. “Remember, cold foods should be kept no warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.”

John said parents should be aware of fruit drinks that claim to be 100 percent fruit juice because they often have 60 calories in just a 4-ounce serving.

“There’s also string cheese, 100-calorie low-fat snack packs and one-serving fruit cups,” Spada-Dixon said.

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