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How to Pack a Healthy Lunchbox

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Many parents want to give their children a healthy lunch, but it’s not always so easy. They often don’t know what to buy, don’t have the time to shop for it, and, when they’re trying to get everyone out the door in the morning, sometimes they just flat out run out of time. Even if they do pack a nice lunch, there’s no guarantee that the kids will actually eat it. Kids are, after all, kids. And the school lunches they get aren’t always the healthiest, either. But if one chef has her way, that may soon change.

If they have access to it, it’s as just easy for kids to eat healthy foods as unhealthy ones, and they should learn how to make the right choices for themselves, says Ann Cooper, author of “Lunch Lessons.” And the best place to start is the school cafeteria.

More than 30 million kids in the United States get their lunch in school, and that’s why Cooper, a passionate advocate for children’s health, has her sites set on revamping the nation’s school lunch program.

“Kids can’t think if they’re hungry, and they can’t learn if they’re malnourished,” says Cooper. Nutrition plays a critical role in children’s behavior, school achievements and cognitive development, but many of the meals served are hardly nutritious. “They get high fat, highly processed meals, laden with sugar: hotdogs, fish sticks, chocolate milk, canned fruit in heavy syrup,” she says.

“The USDA doesn’t talk about food, it talks about nutrients. You can add nutrients to make anything fit the numbers. Pop Tarts, chicken nuggets, cereals packed with sugar, they’re still bad,” says Cooper. “They should be talking about food, how much fresh fruit, how many fresh vegetables. We have a policy built around ‘designer’ chicken nuggets rather than real food.”

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children born in the year 2000 will have diabetes, and 30 percent are overweight. “We spend $174 billion on diabetes each year,” Cooper points out. “We’re going to pay now or pay later with rising health costs and poor health.”

Cooper says that schools can easily switch from processed, high-fat and high-sugar lunches, to meals based on fresh food purchased from local vendors. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but Cooper has already done it successfully in well-meaning communities like Berkeley, California and Boulder, Colorado, and even New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

As a caterer, businesswoman, and administrator, Cooper knows that schools need the most cost-efficient and fastest way to feed lots of people. She understands how to pay for it, how to prepare it, how to retrain employees to cook it, and, perhaps most important, how to market it to students. And she gives the information away for free.

With funding from Whole Foods, Cooper has created the “thelunchbox.org,” an on-line “toolbox” for school administrators that includes recipes, resources for sourcing local vendors, cooking technique training videos, and educational tools. It’s everything a school system needs to develop a plan to serve fresh, healthy meals.

In “Lunch Lessons” Cooper offers healthy, practical suggestions for Moms who pack lunches themselves. Recipes like Chicken Pot Pie made by putting the chicken mixture in a thermos and wrapping a biscuit separately, and Chicken Caesar Wraps using leftover chicken breast and romaine lettuce tossed with Caesar salad dressing, rolled in a whole wheat wrap.

Quick and easy sandwich tips on Cooper's website include substituting cashew or almond butter for peanut butter; adding dried cranberries or walnuts to chicken salad; using Boston Bibb lettuce leaves as sandwich wrappers; and filling a pita with salad and packing the dressing on the side.

Ultimately, it’s up to parents to make their own choices when feeding their children, but the information Cooper provides helps them make responsible and well-informed decisions. If schools change what they’re serving, then 30 million children will get at least one healthy and nutritious meal five days a week. Not a bad start to giving our kids a better future.

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