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Building Healthier Dinners, Lunches & Snacks

Last updated: August 23, 2023

Eating together as a family offers numerous benefits, including better nutrition, improved communication, and stronger relationships.

Ashley Krautkramer, Registered Dietitian, ThedaCare

Food is fuel, and what kids put in their bodies matters. As children head back to school, establishing healthy eating habits plays a critical role in their well-being and academic success.

“A family that embraces healthy eating can help ensure good physical health,” says Ashley Krautkramer, a ThedaCare Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist. “This supports emotional well-being and strong family bonds.”

Routine meal planning and prepping are key to packing a nutritious punch to any dinner, school lunch, or snack. Here are some ways to get organized and set a foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Family Meal Planning

To avoid grabbing unhealthy foods when you’re tired and trying to figure out what to make for meals, consider this approach: 

Set menus

Jot down the meals you plan to make, ensuring a variety of nutritious options. Assign theme nights or weeks. For instance, have an Italian-focused “Pasta Palooza” or Mexican-inspired week with homemade, protein-packed burrito bowls, veggie-filled quesadillas, and salsa with whole-grain chips. This approach encourages exploration of different ethnic foods, expands the family’s palate, and invites creativity in the kitchen.

Organize recipes

Compile recipes in a binder or use digital tools like meal-planning apps with healthy ideas. Keep a collection of quick, go-to recipes as well as shopping lists to simplify the planning process. Categorize recipes according to themes, dietary preferences, or cooking methods. This makes it easier to find inspiration when you need it. Make sure to involve children in choosing healthy recipes.

Think time-savers

Use aslow cooker for nutritious and ready-when-you-get-home meals. Refrigerate leftovers and have them for lunch the next day. Stock up on frozen produce, which retains its nutritional value and offers a convenient way to add fruits and veggies to meals and snacks throughout the school year.

Have essential ingredients on hand — such as canned low-sodium beans, tuna, and tomatoes — for quick and easy meal additions. Stock up on a variety of herbs and spices to enhance flavor without relying on excess salt or unhealthy condiments. You can easily incorporate all of these foods into salads, wraps, or soups.

The Joy of Family Meal Prepping

Once you have your meal, school lunch, and snacks plan in order, the real fun begins. This includes lessons in nutrition, managing tasks, and the importance of family togetherness.

Make it interactive

Set the stage by playing music or having a friendly cooking competition. Assign age-appropriate tasks to each family member, such as washing vegetables, assembling sandwiches, stirring ingredients, or portioning snacks.

“Children can learn valuable skills — including safe food handling — and develop a sense of ownership in their healthy creations,” Krautkramer says. “By encouraging active participation, kids can develop a healthy relationship with food and build lasting memories.”

Lively lunches

Be sure to strike a balance between nutrition and taste. Great options include wraps with grilled chicken and veggies, whole-grain pasta salads loaded with fresh vegetables, and homemade vegetable soup with a side of whole-grain bread.

“Get creative by using cookie cutters to shape sandwiches into fun forms,” Krautkramer says. “Remember, kids are more likely to eat their lunches when they’re involved in the process. Allow them to choose their preferred fruits, veggies, and proteins. This empowers them to make healthy choices.”

Smart snacks

Snacks play an essential role in providing sustained energy throughout the day, Krautkramer says. Instead of reaching for packaged snacks that are high in added sugars and unhealthy fats, go for homemade alternatives. Prepare a batch of trail mix using nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, or offer fresh fruit with yogurt as a dip. Encourage children to explore flavors and textures by creating their own vegetable skewers with hummus or assembling colorful fruit kebabs.

After you pack lunches and snacks, keep the conversation going about favorite foods and meal making. This helps kids get in a healthy-eating mindset. Krautkramer provides these recommendations:

  • Encourage mindful eating by promoting regular meal times as a family
  • Limit distractions such as screens
  • Support healthy hydration by encouraging water drinking throughout the day
  • Promote a positive relationship with food

“Eating together as a family offers numerous benefits, including better nutrition, improved communication, and stronger relationships,” Krautkramer says. “By involving children in the process of meal planning and preparation, parents can encourage them to make healthier choices and develop a lifelong appreciation for nutritious foods.”

Tags: back to school healthy lunches Healthy snacks meal planning

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