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As kids prepare to head back to the classroom, parents are once again tasked with figuring out nutritious school lunches that their kids will eat.
While sandwiches are a convenient vehicle for protein-packed turkey, roast beef and tuna salad, a daily fare of them can become dull. The good news: There are plenty of ways to add a hit of protein – along with plenty of other essential nutrients – to school lunches.
Protein nutrition for kids
Protein-rich foods (e.g., meat, fish, eggs, dairy, lentils, tofu) supply amino acids, the building blocks for muscles, hormones and infection-fighting antibodies. Protein also strengthens bones, teeth and skin and transports nutrients to cells.
Including protein at lunch also keeps kids feel satiated longer, which can help them concentrate in class.
While getting enough protein is crucial for growing kids, they might not need as much as you think. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, children ages 4 to 8 years need 19 g of protein per day, while 9- to 13 year-olds require 34 g. For adolescents, ages 14 to 18, daily protein needs are 56 g for males and 46 g for females.
For perspective, three ounces of chicken provides 28 g of protein, one-half cup of Greek yogurt supplies 12 g, one large egg has 6.5 g and one-half cup of lentils delivers 9 g.
Six protein-packed lunch box options
Add protein and variety to your school lunch menu with the following foods. If some are unfamiliar to your child, gauge their acceptance first by including them in family meals.
Include a new food to school lunches along with other foods your child likes. Bento box style lunches are a great way to include a variety of foods that kids can pick at.
Having your child participate in the planning and preparation of school lunches can also help pique their interest in new foods.
These fresh green soybeans deliver 10 g of protein per one-half cup (shelled) and they’re a decent source of calcium, magnesium and potassium. Sold in their pods or shelled, edamame is available in the frozen food section of the grocery store.
Make an edamame salad with diced vegetables, add shelled edamame to a pasta salad or serve them cold in their pods (steam or boil them in advance).
These crunchy chickpeas serve up 8 g of protein per one-half cup, along with slow-burning carbohydrates, 6 g of fibre and 2.5 mg of iron. You can buy roasted chickpeas at the grocery store but I recommend making your own (you’ll find lots of recipes online).
One-quarter cup of these small seeds provides 10 g of protein, 3 mg of iron, 2.5 mg of zinc and 190 mg of bone-building magnesium (kids ages 4 to 8 need 130 mg of magnesium per day; 9- to 13-year-olds require 240 mg).
Serve them on their own, raw or roasted, or add them to a homemade trail mix.
Two large eggs supply plenty of protein (13 g), vitamin B12 and selenium, an antioxidant mineral that protects immune cells from free radical damage.
Thanks to the yolk, eggs are also an exceptional source of brain-friendly choline. Two eggs provide a full day’s worth for kids ages 4 to 8 and three-quarters of a day’s worth for nine- to 13-year-olds.
Egg frittata “muffins” are another way to add protein-rich eggs to school lunches.
One and one-half ounces of kid-friendly cheddar cheese provides 10 g of protein along with loads of calcium (300 mg). Serve with whole grain or seed crackers, grapes and cut up veggies.
Or consider offering light ricotta cheese with berries; one-half cup of ricotta contains 12 g of protein and 165 mg of calcium.
This versatile lean meat offers 22 g of protein per three ounces cooked. Plus, it’s a good source of vitamin B12, iron and zinc.
Lunch box suggestions: turkey taco bowl, turkey patty, turkey meatballs or leftover ground turkey and vegetable stir-fry.
When sandwiches are on the school lunch menu, I recommend using freshly roasted turkey or chicken breast instead of processed lunch meats, which can contain high amounts of sodium and saturated fat as well as some preservatives like nitrates. In adults, a high intake of processed meat is linked to a greater risk of colorectal cancer.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD