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How to avoid the school lunch slump—and keep kids excited for their meal

With the school year in full swing, you may have already approached that school lunch slump. As a parent, you want your kids to eat a well-balanced, nutritious meal, but you also want to make sure your child eats what you pack. The last thing you want to do is fill your kiddo's lunchbox with junk or unhealthy fare or get stuck on repeat meals that may bore them.

So how do you make sure the healthy lunches you pack get eaten? Here are a few tips:

1. Prepare lunch together

Children should be part of the process so discuss what they would like, and even have them choose foods to include from the various food groups. The more involved your child is in making their lunch, the more likely they will eat it.

2. Meal prep

As a parent, busy weeks can let healthy habits slip. Be prepared with healthy options by meal prepping at the beginning of the week. That could mean pre-making containers of cut up veggie with dips like hummus or ranch, or pre-packing nut-free trail mixes that fit perfectly into a healthy lunch box.

3. Encourage eating together with friends

Lunch is a social time and more enjoyable when surrounded by family and friends. Ask your child who they sat with and discuss lunchtime with them.

4. Make meals for appealing

Kids eat with their eyes, so adding bright colors or shapes helps make the meal more appealing. Think red peppers, orange clementines, black beans and green edamame. Even lunch boxes can have bright, fun colors so kids enjoy toting them to school.

5. Leave some love

My kids always loved when I left them a personalized not in their lunchbox. They would come home with all smiles. Even a simple "I love you," or "hope you're having a great day!" can help.

6.  Opt for allergy-friendly options

Many schools are nut-free, so make sure to stay updated on their lunch policy. Fortunately, there are many options now available at your local markets.

7. Keep food safety in mind

Some kids eat lunch early at school while others have a later lunch hour. If your child eats later, you want to make sure to keep their lunch cold. Look for insulated containers to pack lunches, and use several ice packs to keep it cold. You can even speak to the school as some will refrigerate lunches if needed.

What to know about kid's nutrition

According to a recent survey by Revolution Foods, the nation's leading healthy school and community meal provider, 80% of parents and 60% of students agreed that balanced nutrition, including a selection of lean proteins, whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies, is extremely important when it comes to school lunches because it gives children the opportunity to take in the nutrients they need for successful growth and development.

Nutrients children need include:

  • Calories: Children need to take in enough calories, which depend on age, gender and activity level. Your child's pediatrician or registered dietitian can crunch those numbers. Most of the calories should come from nutritious foods.
  • Protein: Children are growing and need protein to do so. Protein is also important for strength and muscles. Choose lean proteins whenever possible like skinless chicken breast, lean cuts of beef and pork, tofu, eggs and fish.
  • Iron: Children are at risk of not getting enough iron in their diet. Foods that provide iron include meat, poultry, beans and leafy green vegetables. For the iron to be better absorbed from plant foods (like spinach), pack them together with vitamin-C rich food like strawberries, citrus fruit and bell peppers.
  • Calcium: Needed for strong bones and teeth, calcium is another nutrient kids require. One of the best sources of calcium is cow's milk and dairy products, but you can also find it in calcium-fortified juices, calcium-based tofu, beans, soy milk and leafy green vegetables.

Here are some recipes we love:

Turkey Tacos

Total: 25 mins

Prep: 15 mins

Cook:10 mins

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 1 or 2 fresh chili peppers, like serranos or jalapeños (chopped)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil (or canola or vegetable oil)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 1/2 pounds lean ground turkey meat (or 2 cups shredded cooked)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves (chopped)
  • 1 lime
  • 8 corn tortillas (or taco shells)
  • Optional: salsa, guacamole, spring mix lettuce, cheese, and sour cream

Steps to make it:

  • Gather the ingredients.
  • Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
  • Add the garlic and chiles. Cook, stirring, until fragrant and soft, about 2 minutes.
  • Add the cumin and cayenne and stir to combine until spices sizzle, about 30 seconds.
  • Add the turkey and salt. Stir to combine and break up meat with the back of the spoon or spatula.
  • Cook, stirring occasionally, until the turkey is cooked through. Note: if using shredded cooked turkey, also add 1/4 cup of water, stir to combine, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cover to heat everything up and let the flavors blend a bit, about 10 minutes.
  • When the meat is fully cooked, take it off the heat, and stir in the cilantro.
  • Juice the lime over the meat and stir to combine.
  • Heat the tortillas, if using, and top each one with some ground turkey, salsa, guacamole, and lettuce (or fill each taco shell). Add sour cream or shredded cheese, if you like.

Serve and enjoy!

Easy Cheesy Chicken Quesadillas

Total: 15 mins

Prep: 5 mins

Cook: 10 mins

Yield: 6 Quesadillas (3 to 4 Servings)

Ingredients:

  • 6 flour tortillas
  • 2 (9-ounce) packages cooked diced chicken
  • 1 cup shredded Colby cheese
  • 1-1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 3 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1 cup salsa

Steps to make it:

  • Place three of the tortillas on a work surface. Top the tortillas with half of the cheeses, then the chicken, then the remaining cheeses. Top the filling with the remaining tortillas. Spread outsides of the quesadillas with the butter.
  • Heat a flat pan, large skillet, or griddle over medium heat. Add the quesadillas, one at a time, and cook, pressing down with a spatula, until bottoms are browned, about 2 to 4 minutes. Turn quesadillas and cook second side 2 to 3 minutes or until the tortillas are browned and crisp and the cheeses melt.
  • Remove the quesadilla with a spatula to the work surface and cut into quarters. Repeat with remaining quesadillas. Serve immediately with salsa for dipping.

English Muffin Pizzas

Total:10 mins

Prep: 3 mins

Cook: 7 mins

Yield: 2 English muffins (2 servings)

Ingredients:

  • 2 English muffins, preferably whole grain (see Note), split
  • 1 cup store-bought or homemade tomato sauce
  • 4 slices (1⁄4 inch thick) Mozzarella, preferably fresh
  • Coarse salt to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano (optional)

Steps to make it:

  • Preheat a toaster oven or standard oven to 350°F.
  • Toast the English muffin halves until very lightly brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Spoon 1⁄4 cup of the tomato sauce evenly over each English muffin half.
  • Top each English muffin with a slice of mozzarella. Lightly salt, and sprinkle on the oregano if desired.
  • Bake or toast the pizzas until the cheese is melted and a bit bubbly, about 4 minutes. Serve, making sure your kids know that the pizzas are hot!

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