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KNOXVILLE—Now that MyPlate has replaced the food pyramid, parents may need a refresher course on what to pack their kids for a healthy, wholesome lunch.

Marsha Spence, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and assistant director of the public health nutrition program at UT Knoxville, said that both school lunches and packed lunches can be healthy options.

“School districts do provide healthy options, and now most post school menus online so parents can look to see what the school is offering,” Spence said. “If parents take time to plan and pack healthy lunches for school, they can provide their children with healthy options, too.”

Spence, whose primary area of research is childhood obesity prevention, gives these tips for packing your child a healthy lunch:

1. Safety First—Make sure to follow food safety precautions when preparing foods for school lunches to prevent foodborne illnesses. Wash hands prior to packing the lunch, wash all fruits and vegetables, and keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Insulated lunchboxes keep lunches colder than plastic lunchboxes. Also, some plastics may contain contaminants. Make sure that anything that will be in direct contact with foods or beverages is phthalate- and BPA-free.

2. What to Pack—Parents can use MyPlate guidelines to pack a healthy lunch by packing a serving of fruit and a serving of vegetables and including a serving of a lean protein, a serving of whole grains, and a serving of fat-free or low-fat (1percent) milk. Use whole wheat breads and crackers to make sure children are getting enough fiber and use a variety of colors of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the week to make sure children get enough vitamins and minerals.

3. What not to Pack—Limit processed meats, whole fat cheeses, chips, foods high in sodium, candy, soft drinks, sports drinks, and juices. Instead, use reduced-fat cheeses and low-fat or skim milk.

4. Teachable Moments—Children should begin helping pack their school lunches in kindergarten with simple tasks such as washing their hands and washing fruits and vegetables or putting fruits and vegetables in containers. “Packing lunch can be a teachable moment in a child’s life, where parents can talk about healthy foods and why they are important,” Spence said. “Children can even help choose what goes into their lunch by choosing among healthy choices.”

5. Get the Facts, Do the Math—Parents should read the nutrition facts on food. If a serving has greater than 20 percent of the daily value for a nutrient, it is considered high in that nutrient and if it contains less than 5 percent of the daily value for a nutrient, it is considered low in that nutrient.

“It is most important that children eat a healthy lunch, so planning—either by packing lunch or talking to children about the choices that they make at school—can help ensure children actually eat a healthy meal at lunchtime,” Spence said.


Amy Blakely, 865-974-5034,

Lola Alapo, 865-974-3993,