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Lunch break: Nutrition professor says what kids bring can affect their dietary choices for years to come

Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017


MANHATTAN — When parents pack school lunches, it can be easy to just fill the lunchbox with convenience foods, but it's important to make sure the meal includes fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy and grains, according to a Kansas State University nutritionist.

That's because studies suggest that children's long-term food preferences develop early in life, said Jennifer Hanson, assistant professor of food, nutrition, dietetics and health.

"Packing healthful lunches isn't just about providing for their nutritional needs today," Hanson said. "It's about establishing lifelong eating habits they will carry with them into adulthood."

For protein, Hanson advises a variety of protein-rich foods, including beans, lean meats, eggs, soy, nuts and seeds.

When it comes to dairy, parents should avoid sending milk from home.

"It's best to buy milk at the school so parents know it is cold and safe, and their children are still getting the protein, vitamin D and calcium they need," Hanson said.

Grains should be whole grains, so parents should look for products that are labeled 100 percent whole grain or have a whole grain listed first on the product’s ingredient list.

For fruits, Hanson advises bringing a whole fruit rather than a processed, prepackaged fruit cup to limit added sugars.

"For example, instead of packing applesauce with added sugar, bring a whole apple, or instead of peaches with a heavy sauce, just pack a peach," Hanson said.

To help ensure that their children actually eat the vegetables packed in the lunch, Hanson said parents should include their children when selecting and preparing those foods. Involving children in food preparation increases their willingness to eat those foods, Hanson said.

This process starts at the store, where parents can involve younger children by discussing vegetables' colors and textures, and they can involve older children by discussing cost and value, Hanson said. At home, older children can help prepare vegetables and younger children can help put sliced vegetables in air-tight containers to store in the refrigerator.

Also, there's nothing wrong with a little taste test before packing the lunch.

"Some experts suggest it may take kids 10-12 times of trying a new food before they actually accept it," Hanson said. "Involve them in the preparation, expose them to the food in different ways, and give them a chance to taste it to increase the likelihood they will actually eat it."


Jennifer Hanson


Food, nutrition, dietetics and health department


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Jennifer Hanson

Jennifer Hanson, Kansas State University nutritionist, says the foods children bring for school lunches may have lasting effects on their dietary choices.


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Written by

Tiffany Roney