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Generally, the best way to insure a safe and healthy diet is to eat meals that are prepared in your own home. However, many of us are eating away from home more than ever before. One of the keys to healthy eating is to plan your meals and snacks before you get hungry. Bring your own good quality food to work or school so that you have what you need when you need it. If you can’t make your own meals and snacks, find out where to go to get good, healthy food in your neighborhood and near your job.

I know that it’s difficult to change your habits for the benefit of others; this needs to be something you do for yourself. However, if anyone should make positive changes, it is parents for the sake of their children. The most effective way to get kids to eat healthfully is to set a good example! Young people are most influenced by what they see and experience, not by what they’re told. Therefore, what you do—how you live—has the greatest effect on shaping your kids’ behavior and their diets. Remember that the habits your children form while they’re young will probably be with them for life.

The typical school cafeteria generally offers meals with too much refined flour and sugars, starch, excess cheese, and artificial food colorings. Also, fast food conglomerates are beginning to buy their way into many school cafeterias across the country. I’m sorry but I cannot accept as a balanced meal for our children a high fat cheeseburger, salty French fries, and a sugary soda or a milkshake. Nor is processed macaroni and cheese and chocolate cake my idea of good nutrition. I ate these kinds of meals growing up and was overweight and congested with regular colds and allergies. The most common excuse is that kids won’t eat anything else. They will if you work with them. School lunches still should be nourishing and healthy. Otherwise the kids may be hyped up or dopey on sugar and food chemicals, which is hardly ideal for learning or cooperative behavior.

Let me say a few words about the Glycemic Index since I refer to it below. Sugar metabolism and high-sugar foods in the diet are a problem and are affecting obesity in children and adults, and the increased incidence of diabetes, as shown in numerous research studies. The Glycemic Index refers to how fast an individual food gets its sugar (glucose) into the blood stream. Childhood overweight and insulin problems occur earlier and affect obesity and other diseases. So, if we love the children and ourselves, it is of value to find tasty alternatives to corn, potatoes, chips, refined cereal, bananas, lots of juice, and more of the foods high on the Index.

Fresh Fruit If you have access to organic produce or a farmers’ market, shop the sales (the good harvests) each week. Fruit tends to be a great favorite with kids, and also really healthy.

The following fruits are lower on the Glycemic Index and are ones that kids tend to like:

  • Apples and pears
  • Oranges
  • Berries (strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries)
  • Stone fruits: cherries, peaches, nectarines, and plums
  • Grapes (in moderation)
  • Mangoes and kiwi fruit

For adults and children who have digestive problems, it’s important to have fruit or juice at a separate meal. Most people find that fruit moves through the digestive tract more quickly than other foods. In people who are sensitive, it can also speed up the rate that the entire lunch passes through the digestive tract. For those people, their food doesn’t stay in the stomach long enough and is only partly digested. Basic food combining practices suggests eating fruit by itself.

Here you’ll need to individualize the menu, based on two main factors: what your family will eat and whether they have any allergies.

They travel well, and have a good balance of carbs and protein. Because they’re so dense, some children find them difficult to digest or not to their taste; in that case you can try nut butters—peanut butter, almond or cashew butter. Children may also enjoy fresh almonds or walnuts, and roasted cashews or mixed nuts. If they like peanuts, you can mix them with other nuts like almonds and pecans to enhance the flavor. Some salt is okay for children as they are active and need a little salt. (Note: Since peanuts can trigger allergies, it’s important to be sure your child can handle peanuts, or any food for that matter. See The False Fat Diet book for a discussion of allergies and how to detect them.)

This is a beneficial food if your child tolerates dairy products. Since kids tend to like yogurt with sweetener or fruit, be sure it’s not too sweet by checking both the carbohydrate and sugar content on the label, as well as any chemicals used. Good yogurts include Horizon (organic), Brown Cow, and others; drinkable yogurt or kefir with added fruit, such as strawberry or raspberry; and non-dairy yogurt like organic soy yogurt are also popular. Other dairy products as tolerated. The jury is still out on dairy products. Thus, if you want to serve cheese, 1) be sure your family can digest dairy—both the milk sugar (lactose) and the milk protein (casein), and 2) serve in moderation. Dairy choices that children like include firm cheeses like Swiss or cheddar and cream cheeses. Adults are more likely to enjoy deli-style cottage cheese.

These foods can round out your lunch menu; they are often flavors your child likes. As you’ve probably observed, the response to soy and the ability to digest soybean products is quite individual. If you’re on a tight budget, perhaps serve them once a week. Good choices include prepared tofu salads and dips, braised tofu, and tofu “burgers.”

EGGS (the best are free-range and organic).
Be sure to send them chilled, in a thermos or with blue ice to avoid spoilage (which can be a real issue with eggs).

Tuna is a classic, and many children like chicken salad. On the other hand, many kids don’t like the combination of meat and vegetables (such as lettuce) on the same sandwich, particularly if it gets soggy. Some children prefer tofu mayonnaise, which eliminates the concern about botulism with egg-based mayo. Whenever possible, buy your eggs, poultry, and meats organic.

Finding out the whole grains your child enjoys is a matter of trial and error.

Good grains for cold weather include whole oats, quinoa, and brown rice. Almonds or other nuts can be cooked right along with oatmeal or brown rice. Whole wheat and multi-grain breads are good, and children may like them with tuna salad or peanut butter or cashew butter. Pocket sandwiches made with organic whole-wheat pita bread—it freezes well too. You may want to try a recipe such as Oatmeal Spice Cookies to pack for lunch. Sweet potatoes and yams are filling starches that are low on the Index. Some of our favorite autumn vegetables are high on the Index and tend to promote weight gain, especially corn and potatoes. Use those in moderation and build up a repertoire of recipes that include sweet potatoes or yams, beans (like black beans), and other whole grains. Burritos and wraps are good choices.

Children or adults who have mood swings—or hyper energy and then fatigue—may be sensitive to sugars. In that case, I encourage making sure there is protein in their lunch. When protein is eaten along with starchy foods higher on the Index, the whole meal is digested more slowly and the blood sugar is less likely to surge up (boosting energy rapidly) and then secondarily not drop too fast. This will avoid the result of fatigue, depression, or anger. Mood and energy usually parallel blood sugar, so the goal is to have some protein and some carbohydrate to keep blood sugar and energy steady. Although not perfect food combining, it is helpful for children and adults who are sugar sensitive.

VEGETABLES WHY DON’T KIDS LIKE VEGETABLES? One of the secrets is that fresh vegetables only taste good if they’ve been quick cooked and served immediately. So green beans, squashes, broccoli, and other vegetables tend to taste great if they’re braised or stir fried for no more than 10 minutes and then served immediately. Even 20 minutes later, they may have lost their flavor. By the next day, at lunchtime, they usually just aren’t the same. Better to serve vegetables once a day and have your child love them than to serve them as leftovers and find they haven’t been eaten. However, many kids will enjoy fresh carrot and celery sticks sent separately with some dip like ranch dressing, hummus, or avocado. Starchy vegetables, on the other hand, tend to keep pretty well. Examples are sweet potatoes, yams, rice, beans, etc.

SALADS You can make delicious salads to bring in your lunch. Salads that kids may also like include:

Chunky salads that have no lettuce at all, including whatever fresh veggies your child likes. Since we now know that fats in moderation are healthy, you can make your salads more filling by including nuts or braised tofu chunks.

Cold cuts (healthy ones please), cheeses, whole grain crackers, and your child’s favorite fresh veggies are good choices. There are now many commercially prepared lunches, with the addition of veggies. Since only you know the foods your child likes, you’re the ideal person to put the combination together.

Guacamole and healthy chips. Just be sure to pack the guacamole separately in a container with a lid to keep it nice and fresh and to avoid spoiling.

Cole slaw. Green or purple cabbage makes great slaw. You can add apples and fresh walnuts, or other variations your family likes. Go easy on the sweet dressings.

CHOICE VEGGIES Based on what your child likes, you could pack hearts of romaine lettuce or the tender celery stalks. You don’t have to buy these special; just save them for your child and use the rest in your own salad. Other tasty choices include carrots, red or golden peppers, and various types of olives. You may even want to buy a variety of samples from the salad bar where you shop, and then make up your own combinations later based on what your family actually preferred.

Elson M. Haas, MD

Elson M. Haas, MD is a medical practitioner with nearly 40 years experience in patient care, always with in an interest in natural medicine. For the past 30 years, he has been instrumental in the development and practice of Integrated Medicine at the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (PMCM), which he founded in 1984 and where he is the Medical Director. Dr Haas has been perfecting a model of healthcare that integrates sophisticated Western diagnostics and Family Medicine with time-honored natural therapies from around the world.

This educating, writing doctor is also the author of many books including Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, 21st Century Edition, The NEW Detox Diet: The Complete Guide for Lifelong Vitality with Recipes, Menus, & Detox Plans and more. His latest book is Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine which integrates Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal Health. Visit his website for more information on his work, books and to sign up for his newsletter.