As kids head back to school, many parents struggle to come up with healthy lunch options that kids will enjoy. Here are some healthy lunch alternatives from nutritionists, chefs and "GMA" viewers.
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School Lunch Alternatives: Experts' Advice
Beyond Peanut Butter:
There are options for children with peanut allergies. Peanut allergies don't always translate to other nuts, so some children can try almond butter. "This is a really nutritious option that allows kids to have a similar alternative," said Dr. Keith Ayoob, the director of the nutrition clinic at the Rose R. Kennedy Center in New York City.
Other peanut butter alternatives include soy nut butter, sunflower seed butter and apple butter.
*Allergies can vary by individual, so always check labels and check with your child's doctor.
Skip the Sandwich:
Experts say low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers are a great way to get your kids the calcium they need. Hard boiled eggs are also an option. Dietitian Marion Groetch of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City says eggs are "a great source of protein and low in saturated fat."
She also suggests whole grain pasta salad and green salads.
Heather Cupp, a dietitian with Riley Hospital for Children's POWER program in Indianapolis, Ind., says there are lots of fun alternatives to the lunch sandwich. Her suggestions include:
Breakfast for Lunch: 2 tablespoons of apple butter with one medium banana sliced and sandwiched between two whole wheat waffles, 1 cup of low-fat milk, 1 cup of carrot sticks.
Tacos to Go: Two hard or soft taco shells, or one small bag of baked tortilla chips and toppings like lettuce, tomato, low-fat cheese,, beans, salsa, etc. Add one low-fat pudding cup and 1 cup of berries for dessert.
No-Bake Pizza: 1 Whole grain English muffin, 1/2 cup of tomato sauce, 1 piece of string cheese, 5 slices of turkey pepperoni, 1/2 cup of sliced sweet peppers and mushrooms. Assemble at school so the muffin does not get soggy.
Shape, Alphabet or Other Theme Meals: An "S" themed lunch could include salmon salad (instead of tuna) with crackers, sweet bell pepper slices and strawberries for a sweet end. A circle theme would have crackers, reduced fat cheese cut-outs, melon balls, cherry tomatoes and other circle foods. Or try an ocean theme: tuna salad with goldfish crackers, blue Jello, broccoli trees with dip and pineapple for dessert.
Healthy Lunch Alternatives
If your child has to have that sandwich, there are lots of good choices. Experts draw a distinction between processed meats and fresh deli meats, such as plain roast turkey or roast beef.
Start with whole grain breads, rolls, pitas and wraps, Groetch advises.
Hummus is a great alternative to processed meats, as are tuna salad, chicken salad or egg salad. Just watch the salt content and limit tuna salad to twice a week because of the mercury content.
Ayoob recommends "a slice of Mom's meatloaf slipped into a pita pocket with some lettuce and tomatoes ... or substitute some leftover chicken that's been deboned and shredded."
And for dessert, nutritionist Connie Diekman, the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, suggests a "fruit and yogurt smoothie enjoyed with graham crackers."
Experts note that packed lunches should always be kept chilled until eaten.
Sarah Moulton recommends marinating very thin chicken breasts in olive oil and lemon juice and grilling them on the weekend to have for the week. She also suggests pita pizzas with low-sodium tomato sauce and low-fat unsalted mozzarella with tomato and basil and other veggies.
Rocco DiSpirito says one option is "a mini smorgasbord of veggies, fruits, cheeses and sauces." You can find containers that separate hot and cold foods and can separate sauces. Include things like carrot sticks, celery sticks, asparagus, broccoli, cherry tomatoes and low-fat string cheese with dips like marinara sauce, low-fat ranch dressing and hummus. He also recommends fruits like strawberries, cherries, grapes and peaches, with dips like low-fat cream cheese and jelly and flavored yogurts.
And "GMA's" own chef Karen Pinkus says a great healthy alternative is a white bean spread:
(1 can drained white beans, 1 clove garlic, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp lemon juice, chopped fresh rosemary in the food processor or mash it all up with a fork). You can serve it on bread or with crackers, cherry tomatoes, or cucumbers.
Healthy Lunch Alternatives, From Parents
Viewers sent e-mails to "GMA" with their own healthy solutions.
Kristen of Gurnee, Ill., makes her own sliced meat.
"My husband and I grill/roast chicken breasts, turkey, or roast beef," she wrote. "We then slice and freeze the meat for future sandwiches. We like this method because we are able to control (for the most part) the amount of fat and salt that is added in the cooking process."
Crystal Ottaviano of Stamford, Conn., wrote to "GMA" that she gives her daughter sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches. "This is not only a healthy alternative to deli meat," she wrote, "but sunflower butter has a similar taste and consistency to peanut butter, and is a safe alternative for many kids with peanut allergies."
Suzanna Quintana of Sheridan, Wyo., suggested preparing packed lunches "tapas-style, with several healthy options that are easy to munch on: celery sticks, carrot sticks, pretzels, cucumbers, natural apple sauce, whole grain crackers, dried fruit, like raisins or cranberries, cheese sticks, etc."
Another mother suggested making burritos instead of sandwiches.
"Use whole grain tortillas, smear some re-fried beans, grated cheese and taco sauce if they like it spicy," wrote Nell Justice of Las Vegas. She also suggested adding "natural apple sauce and carrot sticks to nibble on."