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Making healthy back-to-school meals for your hungry learner [tips, resources]

With Lancaster County students starting their new school year, it’s time for parents to think about getting back into the school year food routine of nutritious lunches, snacks and more.

Here are some tips and online resources parents can use to prepare healthy school lunches and snacks, supplement those with nutritious meals at home and teach young children about making good food choices early.

Healthy recipes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a free cookbook families can download online, titled “Recipes for Healthy Kids: Cookbook for Homes.”

It offers recipes developed for school lunch programs across the country, from fiesta Mexican lasagna to stir-fry fajita chicken, squash and corn to Tuscan smoked turkey and bean soup.

You can download the cookbook at

ACookbookKids, or visit or for other recipes and nutrition tips for students.

Step-by-step snacks

Want to teach your young kids a step-by-step method for preparing a healthy snack or sandwich?

The USDA offers illustrated instructions for making such lunch items or snacks as a crunchy rainbow wrap, a fruit-a-licious breakfast cup or a Food Froup Friend.

The rainbow wrap, for example, helps kids learn to “paint the sky” (a whole-wheat tortilla) with reduced-fat cream cheese, then “eat the rainbow” by rolling up different kinds of colorful veggies — carrot shreds and red pepper strips, spinach and radiccho — into a wrap.

Or, children can learn about basic food groups by assembling the face of their Food Group Friend.

For the head, children can choose an English muffin, brown rice cake or bread. They can add eyes, nose and mouth by choosing from the protein group — beans and hard-boiled eggs — and various fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, cucumbers and bell pepper strips. The “friend’s” face is finished off with hair made from shredded low-fat cheese from the dairy group.

You can find the instructions for these and other picture recipes at

Packing lunches

Penn State Extension also offers ideas for nutritious options in school lunches and snacks.

Extension suggests making sure to pack lunches kids can easily eat in a 15- to 20-minute period. This might include doing the prep work for the child, such as peeling an orange and using easy-to-open containers.

Another tip is not to include foods in packed lunches that kids have never eaten before; be sure they’ll be willing to refuel at lunch by packing foods you know they will eat.

Extension also advises breaking lunch items down into smaller pieces that are easier or more fun to eat. Rather than packing a whole sandwich, for example, cut it into smaller pieces.

For more tips, visit

Good choices

More than a quarter of students’ daily calories may come from snacks, the USDA reports.

So the agency also offers a series of free resources, including “A Guide to Smart Snacks in School.”

It’s available to download at

It links to other resources through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, at, which offers recipes for lunch items and snacks including a cranberry cutie pie parfait of vanilla yogurt, dried cranberries, a clementine and granola.

The alliance, co-founded by the American Heart Association, also has an online “Smart Snacks Product Calculator” that lets you know whether a given snack meets USDA healthy snack standards.

A healthy “smart snack,” according to the USDA, should contain at least 1/4 cup of fruit or vegetables and should have a whole grain, fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein listed as its first ingredient.

It should also be 200 calories or less, have less than 35% of its weight in sugar and have less than 10% of its calories in saturated fat.

The calculator can be found at

Meatless meals

If your family is vegetarian, or if you’re looking for ideas for some meatless lunch options for your children, the Vegetarian Resource Group, based in Baltimore, has plenty of ideas.

Its tips for “healthy fast food for preschoolers,” for example, include fixing extra grains or pasta at dinner so there will be leftovers for use as a foundation for the next day’s school lunch.

It also suggests choosing pastas — even those using whole-grain flours —that come in the fun shapes kids like, such as spirals, wagon wheels and alphabet letters.

You can dress up those pastas with one of several vegetable-based sauces, such as an orange-raisin sauce of blended chickpeas, orange juice, curry powder and raisins.

There are more tips and recipes at the Vegetarian Resource Group, at The tips for preschoolers can be found at

More vegetarian tips and recipes are available through Meatless Monday, a nonprofit initiative connected with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It’s at

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