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Easy swaps for a healthier school lunch

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A recent Tufts University study found that only 27 percent of lunches parents are packing for kids meet at least three of the five National School Lunch Program standards requiring one serving each of fruit, vegetable, grain, protein and milk. Not a single one of the 626 children’s lunches in the study fully met the NSLP standards.

With a little help from Chef Nick Speros and Project Bread, parents can pack healthier lunches that kids will eat without spending a lot of extra time and money.

Project Bread's Chefs in Schools Initiative places professional chefs in dozens of schools to help train kitchen staff how to prepare healthier, cost-effective meals that kids like to eat.

You can prepare school lunches like a professional and help your kids eat healthier lunches with these eight tips from Chef Nick.

Switch out your white sandwich bread for whole wheat bread. Whole wheat bread typically has more fiber, absorbs more slowly to prevent blood sugar spikes and contains several more vitamins, including folate, riboflavin, B-1, B-3 and B-5.

Instead of crackers, pack some thin rice cakes, but make sure they don’t have too much sugar. Rice cakes are high in fiber and they are complex carbohydrates, which provide longer-lasting energy than refined grains. And as an extra benefit for teachers, eating rice also produces serotonin, which can improve your kids’ mood.

Cut up bite-sized, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Produce that’s in-season both costs less and is at peak nutritional value. You can also freeze your produce, then use it year ‘round without breaking the bank.

Pack some raw green beans as a snack, along with a dip. They’re fun, sweet and crunchy. And they’re even healthier raw than cooked, containing protein, potassium, iron, magnesium and vitamins A, B, C and E.

Make your own ranch dressing dip instead of packing store-bought. This recipe is healthier, easy, low-cost and will last a full week.

Chef Nick's Healthy Ranch Dressing Mix

Ingredients:
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup low-fat sour cream
3/4 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon hot sauce, optional
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh basil, sliced thinly
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
(Yield: 2 cups)

Combine all ingredients in a medium stainless steel bowl. Mix completely. Chill for one hour, or reserve under refrigeration for up to one week.

Introduce your kids to hummus. It's high in protein and healthy fats to keep kids full longer, plus it has iron to boost energy, fiber, and many other nutrients. There are a ton of different kinds, so let your kids taste test and see which they like best. Kids are more likely to eat foods when they feel like they’ve been an active part of the process.

Buy a chicken breast at the start of the week, broil or grill it, then cut thin slices for sandwiches instead of buying deli meat. Your kids will be eating much less processed food, getting more protein and fewer fillers.

Create a make-your-own burrito box with healthy ingredients. You can use leftover chicken from a meal earlier in the week, toss in a whole wheat wrap, chop up some veggies, add some cheese and put it all in separate containers so your kids can put together their own meal. Kids love to help make their own food and doing so often makes them more invested in eating it.

Nick Speros is a long-time chef and father of three with a passion for feeding people and caring for children. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Newbury College with a minor in Elementary Education from Lesley University. He’s an award-winning chef who has worked at Aquitaine Restaurant in Boston, Soma in Beverly, Eat in Somerville and owned 197 East Main in Gloucester.

Project Bread is the only statewide anti-hunger organization in Massachusetts committed to providing people of all ages, cultures, and walks of life with sustainable, reliable access to nutritious food. From community-based meal programs, to early childhood and school nutrition initiatives, to improved access to farm-to-table resources, Project Bread approaches hunger as a complex problem with multiple solutions. With funds raised through The Walk for Hunger and other sources, Project Bread pioneers innovative initiatives and supports effective programs to eradicate hunger in our state.

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