PARENTS
09/04/2018 15:02 EDT | Updated 09/07/2018 09:00 EDT

Boost Your Kid's Brain Power With These Healthy School Lunch Tips

A nutritious lunch does more than satisfy their hunger.

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With kids returning to school, many parents are back in the habit of planning and preparing school lunches.

To give you some ideas about how to make lunches varied, interesting, and healthy, we rounded up some expert tips on how to make a nutritious and tasty meal that kids will want to eat.

Keep it balanced

Many experts and studies agree that children and teenagers need a balanced diet including all food groups for healthy growth and development, so make sure lunches are varied and nutritious.

Iron-rich leafy green vegetables such as spinach, which can be added to sandwiches, give a natural energy boost, while complex carbs such as sweet potatoes provide energy that is slowly released in the body to help sustain kids through classes.

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Add in plenty of fruits, especially berries, to help with concentration levels. Previous research has also found that topping up levels of omega-3 with oily fish such as salmon can help boost brain functioning. And, consider a hard-boiled egg for a nutritious snack a study published last year found they can encourage healthy growth.

It doesn't have to be different every day

Although the meal itself needs to include a variety of foods and nutrients, kids don't need a huge variety of lunches throughout the week.

According to Molly Paulson, Clinical Instructor at Georgia State University, children don't need to eat something different each day. Lunch is often "comfort food" for kids, who like the routine of knowing what they will have for lunch. And, it will also make meal-prepping easier for parents.

Make lunch more interesting

A study published earlier this year found that when a school canteen added flavour to vegetables with herbs and spices, teenagers ate more of them than when they were cooked with just oil and salt.

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With this in mind, rather than adding in plain old veggies, try some more exciting food combinations in kids' lunches and take some time to find out what they like best.

Perhaps some carrot or cucumber sticks with hummus, or a spicy tomato salsa for dipping.

Add a healthy drink

U.S. research published earlier this year found that when the packed lunches of pre-schoolers age three to five included plain milk, the meals had the highest average score on Healthy Eating Index, followed by lunches with 100 per cent fruit juice with no added sugar, and flavoured milk.

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However, meals that contained a sugary fruit drink showed the lowest score, with the team concluding that the simplest way to improve the nutritional quality of a packed lunch is to include a healthy beverage.

Don't forget snacks

Sabina Valentine, a registered dietitian at the University of Alberta in Edmonton also suggests providing children with snacks to munch on throughout the day.

"They have small tummies and high nutrient needs, so they should have snacks throughout the day. It doesn't have to be huge — just enough to keep them going," she said.

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She suggests a handful of grapes or a half-cup of yogurt for younger kids, and for older kids, especially around exam time, grab-and-go "power snacks" such as a slice of cheese and a handful of almonds, soft pretzels and hummus, or popcorn mixed with nuts and dried fruit.

Treats in moderation

Valentine is also a fan of using the 80/20 rule — eating healthy 80 per cent of the time and indulging in treats the other 20 per cent. She says that it's OK to treat kids occasionally by packing a less nutritious snack such as a granola bar or a home-baked cookie, as long as it makes up no more than 20 per cent of the meal.