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20 healthy lunches your kids will love

Patty James' "More Vegetables, Please!" (©New Harbinger Publications) Patty James' "More Vegetables, Please!" (©New Harbinger Publications)

By Ella Brooks

Say so long to that tired PB&J sandwich and sugary juice box -- and hello to delicious, nutritious school-lunch ideas that your child will devour. In a recent study from the nonprofit Agatston Research Foundation in Miami Beach, Fla., students who ate lunches that contained more whole grains, less total and saturated fat, more fresh produce and less added sugar than typical school lunches had lower blood pressure and were less likely to be overweight.

We caught up with certified natural chef Patty James, author of More Vegetables, Please! Over 100 Easy and Delicious Recipes for Eating Healthy Foods Each and Every Day. As founder of the nonprofit Shine the Light on America's Kids, James drove cross-country and spoke to children in every state about what it means to be healthy. "Kids know that when they skip breakfast and don't have lunch, they feel tired, they can't concentrate, and they don't do as well in school," says James. Help your child ace her exams and stay healthy by making over her lunchbox with these healthy school-lunch ideas.

Sandwiches 2.0

Sandwiches are a cinch to make. "Buy bread that supplies at least 3 grams of fiber per slice," says James. "And think of a sandwich as a vehicle to get more produce into your kid's diet." Here's how to snazz up the standards:

  • AB&J. Instead of peanut butter and jelly, try almond butter and jelly.

  • Add fruit. Sliced pear adds flavor to a turkey sandwich, and apple adds crunch to peanut butter and honey.

  • Wrap it up. Fill a whole-grain pita or wrap with hummus, grated carrots, diced celery and shredded lettuce. Or try black beans and salsa with cilantro.

  • Dress for success. Mix up condiments that go beyond mayo and mustard. Put pesto on a turkey sandwich, or spread thin layers of cream cheese and cranberry jelly on it.

Beyond Bread

Is your little one sick of sandwiches? Try one of these easy dishes that supply protein and whole grains:

  • DIY Lunchables. Pack slices of cheese, turkey, pepperoni and whole-wheat crackers, and let her build her own healthy bites.

  • Beans and rice. Make black beans and brown rice; throw in containers of guacamole and salsa.

  • Breakfast for lunch. Send a container of whole-grain cereal with berries, skim milk and a hard-boiled egg.

  • Mac 'n' cheese. Toss whole-grain pasta with tomatoes, olive oil and mozzarella cheese.

Smarter Sides

Turn the usual accompaniments (potato chips, crackers, etc.) from nutritional zeroes into nutritional heroes:

  • Chip swap. Pack jicama instead of potato chips. "It's crunchy and sweet, so kids love it," says James.

  • Salad box. Greens are more fun when a lunchbox becomes a personal salad bar. Fill containers with ingredients like chopped carrots, bell peppers, celery, lettuce, sunflower seeds and low-fat dressing.

  • Bean salad. Combine kidney and garbanzo beans with chopped celery, green onions and Italian dressing. "Beans are low in fat and high in fiber. Plus, they're easy on your budget," says James.

  • Slam dunk. Send carrot sticks, red-pepper sticks or snap peas with containers of hummus or black-bean dip.

  • Pop secret. Air-popped popcorn with a sprinkling of parmesan is a healthy whole grain masquerading as a fun snack.

Tasty Treats

These sweet surprises are more nutritious (and more creative) than packaged chocolate-chip cookies or animal crackers:

  • Smart cookie. "There's nothing wrong with a cookie, but why not make it healthier?" says James. Stir pumpkin and sunflower seeds and dark-chocolate chips into oatmeal-cookie batter before baking.

  • Fruit skewers. Build kebabs with chunks of pineapple, mango, strawberries and orange segments.

  • Kicked-up trail mix. Nuts and seeds provide healthy fats, which help your child's brain function at its best, says James. Prepare your own trail mix with unsalted nuts, sunflower seeds, a few chocolate chips and a sprinkling of dried cranberries.

  • Little dipper. Pack strawberries with a container of low-fat yogurt for dipping.

Better Beverages

One recent study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that kids' intakes of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin E decreased as their consumption of sugary beverages increased. Those who downed the most sugary beverages were twice as likely to be overweight and/or obese. Skip soda in favor of these drinks:

  • Fruit sparkler. Make sparkling juice by adding a splash of 100 percent juice to mineral water.

  • Berry cooler. Float sliced strawberries and blueberries in a bottle of mineral water.

  • Milky way. Cartons of skim and 1 percent milk provide bone-building calcium.

Ella Brooks is a New York City-based health writer and editor who has covered health and nutrition for magazines and newspapers nationwide, including Shape, Prevention, Natural Health and Woman's Day. She's a devout hand washer and never misses her annual flu vaccine.

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