Tips top pack healthy lower sugar lunches for kids

Back to School: Packing a Healthy Lunch

This blog was originally written for You can read that  post here.

If you’ve stepped into an air-conditioned store to get out of the August heat, then you know retailers are all stocked up to help us get our children ready to go back to school. Everything from highlighters to hand sanitizer is on the shelves to satisfy the “must have” list for kids in every grade. I recall one of the biggest back-to-school decisions my sons made each year was finding just the right lunch box they could carry with pride into the cafeteria. Having their favorite superhero on the outside was all that mattered to them!

What goes inside all those carefully selected lunch boxes has taken on greater significance over the last 16 years since September was first declared National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. It was launched to focus attention on the need for kids across the country to lead healthier lives and prevent the early onset of obesity. Providing our children with a balanced and nutritious midday meal is an important way we can do just that.

Feeding Kids Right for Success in School and Life

Children need to be properly nourished to reach both their physical and intellectual potential. Even when they look fit and appear to be thriving, an inadequate diet can set the stage for future health problems. Eating well-planned meals and snacks each day is one of the best ways to ensure that all of the essential nutrients children need for growth and development are being consumed.

The routines of the school day provide an ideal way to help children form good eating habits that can last a lifetime. Starting with breakfast – either at home or in school – kids need to refuel their bodies in the morning after the overnight fast and get key nutrients that will make them ready to learn. A mid-morning snack also may be needed by younger children, or a breakfast split into two parts, to carry them over until their next meal.

When the lunch bell rings at school it’s time for kids of all ages to eat something nourishing, socialize with friends and, hopefully, get some physical activity. Sitting behind a desk all day is not good for children or adults, so taking advantage of this, and every other opportunity to get up and move around is perfect practice for a healthy lifestyle.

By the time the school day ends, most children are hungry and thirsty. That’s a good time to offer them nutrient-rich foods and beverages to replace any they may not have eaten at breakfast or lunch rather than letting them fill up on less nutritious snacks. Some popular options include cut-up vegetables and hummus, whole wheat crackers and cheese or a fruit smoothie made with yogurt. The goal is to reenergize and rehydrate them for their afternoon activities without letting them get too full to eat their dinner.

Making time to eat with your children each evening can provide one of the biggest boosts to their well-being, regardless of what is served. Research reported in the Family Dinner Project indicates children who eat with their family have higher self-confidence, better grades in school and lower rates of obesity among other benefits. Getting them involved in meal planning and preparation adds to their success by teaching them skills they will need the rest of their lives.

What About Weight Gain in Children?

Preventing unwanted weight gain in children requires that they get enough calories to support normal rates of growth and physical activity, but not much more than that. It is a delicate balance that must be adjusted to meet their changing needs, such as when their activity level slows down after their regular sport season ends.

Replacing some of the added sugars in your child’s diet with a low-calorie sweetener, like aspartame, is one way to reduce unneeded calories and make many of the foods and beverages you want them to eat and drink more enjoyable. Lower calorie, reduced fat and/or sugar-free products can also be substituted for their regular counterparts to help create more balanced menus. (See examples in the chart below.)

Making Healthy Meals and Snacks Part of Your Back-to-School Plan

While plenty of attention goes into making sure the first packed lunch of the year a good one, it’s important that every lunch is as good as the first. One way to do that is to create an idea board—like a Pinterest board—to use as a template for packing lunches. Start by drawing a grid similar to the one illustrated, and then let your child list items under each food group heading that he or she likes, will eat in school and can be easily assembled each day. Remind your children they don’t have to limit themselves to “traditional” lunch foods as long as the items belong in the designated group.

You can see sample foods found in each group on along with the recommended daily servings for children of different ages and the suggested portion sizes. Following the My Plate Daily Checklist will allow you to see how many calories your child needs each day and how to be sure they are getting all of the nutrients they need in their meals and snacks, without exceeding their recommended caloric allowance.

Once the chart is completed lunches can be packed using any combination of foods from each list as long as your child will eat them. All you have to do is make sure the items on the chart are on hand at the start of each week!

Sample School Lunch Planning Chart with Lower Sugar Options

low sugar menus

Nutrition education is taught at home, not through soda taxes

Sweet Childhood Memories

This post was written as a guest blog for Americans for Food & Beverage Choice. You can read the original post here.

While refilling the sugar bowl after a weekend visit from a friend, who likes her coffee sweet, I found myself wondering how this ingredient found in nearly every pantry in the world has become so vilified. That wasn’t always the case.

Sugar was a big part of my diet when I was growing up. My mother took pride in her homemade pies, beautifully decorated birthday cakes, and the 30 different varieties of Christmas cookies she baked every year for family and friends. In the summer she made delicious jars of jams and preserves that my sisters and I spread on her freshly baked bread as an after school snack. And every night after dinner we had dessert, even if it was just a dish of pudding. All that cooking and baking used a lot of sugar!

If I tell someone these memories of my childhood diet they often remark how lucky I was. Looking back I have to agree— there was no guilt or shame in enjoying all the sweet treats my mother prepared. But that’s not the only thing that was different.

My friends and I were much more active than children are today. We walked or rode our bikes to school every day and any place we wanted to go when not in school. We also had far less screen time with just one TV in the house and only 5 channels to watch. And our nutrition education started early, at home, by eating our meals together and learning to how to cook.  .

Heaping all of the blame for our rising rates of obesity on added sugar consumption just doesn’t make sense. Many other changes in our way of life over the past 50 years have also contributed to the problem, so taxing and restricting access to sweetened drinks is not a solution. I can’t even imagine how my mother would have reacted if a law was passed limiting the amount of sugar she could buy!  It’s time to start taking personal responsibility for our health, starting with making better food choices and being more active. Thankfully, we don’t need any new laws to do that.

Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN, “The Everyday RD,” is an author and nutrition consultant who has headed the nutrition services department in a large teaching hospital and maintained a private practice where she provided diet therapy to individuals and families. With more than 30 years of experience, Robyn is motivated by the opportunity to help people make the best eating decisions for their everyday diet. She believes that choosing what to eat should not be a daily battle and aims to separate the facts from the fiction so you can enjoy eating well.


Changing traditions can prevent weight gain from holiday foods and special party dishes

Holiday Treats, Party Dishes and Weight Gain


This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read it here.

If you’re worried about gaining weight during Q4 (fourth quarter) with all of the holiday treats around, it may be time to rethink your annual food budget. Not the amount of money you spend on food, but how you eat throughout the year that makes holiday foods so costly in terms of calories.

It works something like this.

You deprive yourself of foods you love all year, and then when party dishes show up at traditional year-end gatherings, you cash in. The faulty logic of this approach is believing you can have all you want of the Hanukkah honey puffs or Christmas rum balls because you only eat them once a year. If only the math worked in your favor.

The sad truth is you can’t average out the calories you ate today over the other 364 days of the year.

What Makes Some Foods So Special?

The menus for most holiday feasts originated at a time when food was scarce. Being able to celebrate special occasions with foods you rarely got to eat, or foods that had historical or religious significance, helped make the events and the foods seem more important. Over time, the two got so cemented together in our psyches that we reserved eating those foods just for those occasions, even if we could enjoy them on any other day of the year.

The problem is we now have an abundance of food all year round and endless opportunities to eat more than we need. There is no longer a shortage of eggs, oil, or sugar, yet the symbolism of these ingredients and the holiday foods they’re used in lingers on.

One way to avoid over-indulging in them may be to start preparing your favorite party dishes at other times of year. By giving yourself permission to dip into those treasured recipes whenever you like you can diminish some of the pull they may have over your self-control when you confront them during the holidays.

What Else Can We Celebrate?

Gathering extended family around the same table has become a rarity in our 21st Century lives, yet is as important to our survival as the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock was nearly 400 years ago. Maybe now, instead of focusing all of our attention on the food we serve, we can use these special occasions to reconnect with one another.

One way to do that would be to start a “tech-free tradition” that requires everyone to leave behind their smart phones and tablets. Imagine all the verbal messages and hugs that might be exchanged when talking face-to-face with hands free!

What favorite holiday food would you like to eat all year?

Easy Picnic Ideas the Whole Family Will Love!

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Family Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, so the post has been reproduced here.

If you want to take the family on a picnic, that means you’re packing portable food that goes with fun! There’s no need to fuss when your tablecloth is on the ground. Plan a utensils-optional meal and pass the hand wipes instead. Finger food is easy to serve and even easier to clean up. And single portions and packages allow for more variety so there are fewer complaints.


Shorty sandwiches – Cut wraps and hoagies into 1-inch pieces for easy handling and the chance to mix & match these smaller portions.


Bird-in-hand – Prepare chicken legs and wing drummettes your favorite way and let the family enjoy eating them right off the bone.


Meal-on-a-stick – Nothing is more fun to eat than kebobs! Thread them with cooked and chilled meat, poultry, shrimp and vegetables and forget about the need for forks.


Untossed salad – Use a divided serving tray to pack grape tomatoes, olives, cucumber chunks, carrot coins, broccoli florets – whatever your family likes – and a couple of dips so they can be munched as desired.


Stuffed stalks – Fill celery with flavored cream cheese, cheddar cheese spread or peanut butter and raisins, then cut into 2 inch pieces so easy to serve and share.


Finger Fruit – Make sure no peeling, seeding or cutting is needed for the fruit you serve. Try cubed melon, plucked grapes, hulled berries, stemmed cherries, chunked pineapple, and sectioned oranges, either tossed together or packed in separate containers.


One-at-a-time snacks – Pack single serving bags of crackers, pretzels, and chips so there are no leftovers to go stale once the bag is opened. A bigger assortment means there’s something to please everyone.


Two-bite desserts – Cut blondies, brownies, and bar cookies cut into small wedges or bake mini muffins so there’s a chance to sample just what you like, or one of each, without over doing it. Skip anything with frosting that will smoosh and be sticky.


Just enough drinks – You can provide more variety and eliminate the need for cups and refills if you chill an assortment of small drink boxes, pouches, bottles and cans.


Pack to play – A walk through the garage or trip to the dollar store will provide all the toys you need. Look for inflatable balls, Nerf balls, Wiffle bat and balls, velcro mitts and balls, Frisbee, ring toss, croquette set, bean bag toss, butterfly net, soap bubbles and let the fun begin

family riding bicycles together

Are You Making Tradeoffs for a Healthier Lifestyle?

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Family Goes Strong. This site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read the post here.


How do you keep track of what you and the rest of your family have to do each day? I know plenty of households that use a common wall calendar with big boxes for each day so all of their appointments and activities can be recorded. Other families I know share their daily schedules with one another on smart phones so they always know who’s going where, and when.

Still, it seems no matter how we do it, there are never enough hours in the day for all we have to do. And when we’re all so busy, how can you make time for a healthier lifestyle?

Must We Choose Between Cooking vs Working Out?

Results of a study presented at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America suggest many of us must make concessions when it comes to healthy behaviors. Using U.S. Census data from more than 112, 000 American adults, researchers at Ohio State University analyzed how much time was spend on meal preparation and exercise in a single day

What they found was, on average, we’re spending less than an hour a day combined for these time-consuming healthy behaviors and if we try to do them both in the same day we have to choose between one of the other.

Does that sound true for you?

It must be pointed out that the Census data only captures one day’s worth of activity, so the researchers could not tell if people cooked one day and exercised the next.

Making Time for a Healthier Lifestyle

I don’t think good nutrition and fitness have to be exclusive, no matter how jam-packed my calendar is. It all comes down to time management. Here’s what I have learned works:

Blocked out the time each day to make breakfast, pack lunches and cook dinner

Become more efficient at getting nutritious meals on the table fast by using quick cooking ideas that take the toil out of food preparation

Remove some items from the schedule, like watching every episode of the latest BBC series in one night, if it takes time away from the healthy behaviors you’re trying to establish

While everyone complains about how hard it is to get enough exercise, it is actually easier than eating right. All you really have to do is get up and move around more. In fact, standing instead of sitting is even beneficial! In addition to the dozens of things you can do standing, you can also incorporate 10 minute bursts of activity throughout your day without making a trip to the gym.

The key is to be open to the opportunity. We can all do a better job of pushing those shopping carts back to the corral in the parking lot. How about walking to the school to meet your child so you can walk home together? I loved marching in place while waiting to pick up my teen from marching band practice.

Best of all, when we make good nutrition and physical activity a family affair, we only need to reserve one time slot on the calendar!

Other great ways to help you achieve a healthier lifestyle:

  • Quick Healthy Meals Begin with Pasta
  • Need Dinner Menu Ideas? Soup Makes Quick Easy Meals
  • Want a Quick Grilled Cheese Sandwich? Just Load Up Your Freezer
  • What To Do With Leftover Food? Create Makeover Meals
creating chocolate flavored milk in a laboratory

Debate Over Ingredients in Milk Served at Schools

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read the post here.


Misinformation about the labeling of flavored milk has been in the news lately, and that’s not good. There are always people ready to attack the food industry no matter what they do, but if they suspect a drink for children is being altered in some way – especially the ingredients in milk – it really gets them up in arms.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had to count to ten and wait for the facts to seep in before we reacted to headline news?

Who Decides What’s in Our Food?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established a “standard of identity” for 300 “common and usual” foods and beverages. These are legal definitions that specify the minimum and maximum ingredient requirements for any product sold under a specific name, such as “strawberry jam,” the optional ingredients that may be used in that food and those that are prohibited, as well as processing specifications.

These standards were developed to protect consumers from the problem of inconsistent quality when different food items are sold under the same name. With standards of identity in place, all manufacturers must include a certain amount of strawberries, by weight, in their strawberry jam or call it something else.

The standards also provide a means of penalizing companies that try to sell adulterated products, and they protect us from the economic fraud that can occur when strawberry jam is made with more strawberry gelatin than strawberries.

These standards have even been used to help improve the nutritional value of foods.

So far so good.

What Are the Ingredient’s in Milk?

The standard of identity for “milk” defines the percent solids it must contain (8 ¼ ) and fat (not less than 3 ¼ for whole milk), the amount of vitamins A and D that can be added, and that it must be pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized.

The optional ingredients include natural and artificial flavoring, color additives, emulsifiers, stabilizers and nutritive sweeteners. The list of allowed nutritive sweeteners is long, but includes beet or cane sugar, brown sugar, invert sugar (in paste or sirup form), molasses (other than blackstrap), high fructose corn sirup, fructose, fructose sirup, maltose, dried malt extract, honey and maple sugar.

When one of those optional sweeteners is used in “flavored milk,” it does not have to be named on the front label. Consumers must check the ingredient list to see which one was used. That is, if they realize flavored milk is sweetened.

The uproar over the possible use of sugar substitutes in flavored milk suggests many consumers don’t realize this popular drink for children already contains added sugar.

The Proposed Change in Labeling Flavored Milk

Sugar substitutes are not on the list of allowed optional ingredients in the standard of identity for milk, so their use would require a front of package declaration. The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation want to change that. They proposed an amendment to the standard of identity for milk that would allow the use low calorie sugar substitutes in place of the added sugars in flavored milk without having to identify the milk as “reduced calorie” or “lower sugar.”

The dairy industry believes this would make a lower calorie option available to children without having the stigma of a “diet” claim on the front of the container, which seems to matter to kids on the lunch line. They also claim it will help deal with the problem of overweight and obesity in kids, which now affects 30 percent of them.

All sweeteners would still be named on the ingredient list, and all would be FDA approved sweeteners that are safe for children and adults alike.

Facts About Flavored Milk Now Served in Schools

  • Contains the same 9 essential nutrients as white milk
  • Provides only 3% of the added sugars in the diets of children
  • Contains an average of 39 more calories than white milk
  • Contributes to better quality diets in school-aged children without increasing the total fat or added sugar in their diets
  • Increases milk consumption at school

Do you think the problem of childhood obesity can be helped by offering more lower calorie products on school menus?

Doing food prep ahead of time is one quick cooking idea to make easy family meals.

Quick Cooking Ideas for Easy Family Meals

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Family Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read my blog here.


No matter how well-equipped your kitchen or the number of cookbooks you own, food doesn’t cook itself. It still takes a little talent and some time to turn the food you buy into healthy, easy family meals. The skill can be acquired with training and practice, but the time must be stolen.

After 35 years of making meals from scratch without compromising on good nutrition, I’ve got some quick cooking ideas that can help you find the time you need.

The goal is to do as much of the prep work in advance as possible. One way is to chop, dice and slice in big batches and freeze for future use. Another is to repackage foods into smaller units so they’re ready for assembly. And to save time and money, there are ways to salvage foods you don’t use up, but may need again, especially when they are not in season or always in your larder.

Quick Cooking Supplies

The only way these cooking ideas will help you save time is if you know what you have on hand and can find it. That’s why you need a white board to keep a running inventory of what’s in the freezer. Then you must make sure you label each item with the contents and date.

  • White board and pen
  • Zipper-top freezer bags in 1 quart and 2 quart sizes
  • Clear plastic food wrap
  • Plastic ice cubes trays
  • Stackable plastic food containers with tight-fitting lids
  • Permanent markers
  • Freezer tape or labels, or masking tape

Prepping for Easy Family Meals

Follow the steps in bold type to get foods and ingredients ready for future meals. I do all of these things, but even if you only adopt a few, you will be that much closer to getting meals on the table fast.

Chop, dice or slice, bag, label, freeze:

  • Sweet onions, yellow onions, shallots, leeks – ready for the sauté pan or soup pot
  • Bell peppers in different colors – for stir-fry, chili, omelets

Clean, stem, bag, label, freeze:

  • Hot peppers – leave whole and chop while still frozen

Cook, cool, bag, label, freeze:

  • Long-cooking whole grain brown rice, barley, farro, buckwheat, quinoa – for quick side dish or stuffing
  • Rolled or steel-cut oats – thaws in refrigerator overnight, costs less than instant packets

Trim, individually wrap, label, bag, freeze:

  • Boneless cutlets of chicken and pork and small steaks – to cube or slice or use whole
  • Bone-in chops, shanks or chicken quarters – to enrich a sauce or stock
  • Patties made from beef, poultry, pork or fish – thaw, crumble and cook or season for other uses
  • Sausage links, 2-3 per bag – use whole or remove casings

Shred, bag, label, freeze:

  • Hard cheeses Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Swiss, Provolone, Romano – ready for sprinkling and melting

Quarter, bag, label, freeze:

  • Lemon, lime and orange in skin (scrubbed) – squeeze juice as needed or add pieces to beverages

Bag, label, freeze:

  • Pancakes, French toast, waffles, sliced quick breads, muffins – ready reheating in microwave

Section into single servings, place in containers, label, freeze:

  • Cookies, brownies, unfrosted cake, fruit pie – helps deal with leftovers and regulate future portions

Crush, bag, label, freeze:

  • Crackers, pretzels, chips, cereals – coat nuggets, fish cakes, tofu slices

Crumb, bag, label, freeze:

  • Bread crusts, stale rolls, unused hotdog buns – ready for meatballs, stuffing, crumb toppings
Promising to have more family meals is a unique Mother’s Day gift that benefits the entire family

Family Meals: The Mother’s Day Gift That Keeps on Giving

This post was written as a guest blog for Family Goes Strong. You can read the original version here.


If you’re a mother lucky enough to be asked what you want this Mother’s Day, why not ask for more family meals? A bouquet of flowers will look nice on the table for a few days, but the time your family spends around that table eating together is a gift that can last forever.

I know this is true not only because I have read volumes of research on the benefits of eating as a family, but also because I have fond memories of my experience.

Memories of Childhood Meals

When I was growing up, everyone I knew ate dinner with their family every night. If I wasn’t eating at my own kitchen table, I was eating at a friend’s. But that didn’t change anything since the dining rituals were about the same in every household.

First there was the rule about not eating anything too close to dinner because you might spoil your appetite. It didn’t matter whether the food was a carrot or candy bar. That rule insured we all arrived at the table hungry enough to eat whatever had been prepared. And apparently it worked because we all ate what was served.

Then there were the dinner time chores, starting with the obligatory march into the bathroom to wash our hands. Possible jobs included setting the table or tossing the salad and pouring the milk. If you didn’t do one of those you would have to clear the table, wash the dishes, or dry and put away. With the latter there was also the chance to practice your bartering skills if you wanted to go somewhere right after dinner.

Dessert was served after the dinner dishes were cleared and before they were washed because we all ate it together, around the table. Most nights it was something simple, like a cooked pudding. I remember my wrist would sometimes get singed while stirring the pudding over the gas burners. But I didn’t mind because in my house, the one who stirred the pudding got to pick the flavor, and I loved butterscotch pudding.

Keeping the Tradition of Eating Together

Another great value to those regular family meals is the way they anchored our day. Nothing else was allowed to interfere with them, including homework or school clubs and sports. So like migratory birds, we found our way back to our nesting place by 5:00 PM, secure that we were expected.

I tried to carry on this tradition with my own children the best I could in the fast-paced world they grew up in. More often than not we ate breakfast together because the start of the school day was the most unifying appointment in our mutual calendars. When we couldn’t all eat dinner together, a common meal was nonetheless prepared and those who were home ate it together.

So much has changed since then, there are children today who only eat with the other members of their household on holidays. That’s not good. And that is why we mothers have to make it clear the best gift we could get this year for Mother’s Day is more family meals. It doesn’t matter who does the cooking or what’s on the menu. What matters most is that we all eat together.