Pack good health into kids' lunches

Dr. James Beckerman, a cardiologist with Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of "The Flex Diet." He is also the father of two boys, 4 and 6. You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.

What should parents include in kids' lunches?

I recommend fruits and vegetables in every lunch. There are lots of kid-friendly fruits, such as raisins, apple slices or orange wedges. For vegetables, kids tend to like crunchy ones, such as carrots and celery. At home, we do a lot of sliced peppers. I think if you get fruits and vegetables in there in some form, you're ahead of the game.

What if your kids don't like vegetables?

Think about ways to incorporate vegetables into foods you cook - for example, sneaking broccoli into lasagna, or carrots into muffins - and try out these foods for lunches. Many people say that raw vegetables are healthier than cooked, but you've got to pick your battles. It's better to have cooked broccoli than a raw cookie.

What should parents avoid?

I try to avoid processed foods, from meats and cheeses, to cookies and chips or snacks. It requires you to spend more time making lunch, but you'll end up giving your child much less added salt and sugar, which is really the goal.

So what about lunch meat?

You can find low-fat lunch meats, but my personal opinion is that any processed meat, with added nitrates and salt, just isn't good for us. If you make chicken or chili for dinner, serve leftovers for lunch. You know your kids will eat it, and it's easy on you.

What are your thoughts on meals vs. snacks?

Kids like the idea of snacking better than the adult idea of a main dish and sides. You can have a bunch of different snacks for lunch - such as apple wedges, raisins and cheese - as long as they're balanced and healthy.

What about peanut butter and jelly?

Choose products that have no, or only low amounts of, added sugar. Crushed peanuts or fruit without added sugar are ideal. Choose high-fiber, low-calorie bread. For kids who can't bring peanut butter to school due to classmates' allergies, there are tasty substitutes, such as sunflower seed butter.

Where can we cut salt?

If your kids like nuts, don't buy smoked or salted. Pretzels - same thing. Once kids develop an acquired taste for salt, it's harder to lose later on. Choose baked items rather than fried. And portion size is key. We often think about what we're eating, but not how much.

What's best for kids to drink?

Water should be your kids' primary beverage. I argue against soda (diet or regular), or any kind of fruit drink. If kids want juice, it should be real juice with no added sugar, and in controlled portions. Adding chocolate or strawberry flavors to milk ends up outweighing the benefits.

What about sweet treats?

I think it's reasonable to have sugar in limited quantities. If you want to send cookies to school with your kids, make the cookies. There's a difference between making your own versus buying packaged cookies at the store. Generally, if you know what you're putting into the food, it's going to be healthier.

What can we do to combat weight problems?

You won't find a magic bullet or pill to improve your family's health. We need to take a more holistic approach to how we live. We eat too much, don't eat enough of the healthy stuff, are less active than we should be, get too little sleep and spend less time with our families than we should. Parents can start by modeling good eating habits. Commit to having dinner together as a family. Whether it's once a week or four nights a week, do what works for your family. Incorporate more vegetables - as your main dish, as an ingredient in your main dish, or as a complementary side. After dinner, don't race to do the dishes, check email or park yourself in front of the TV. Instead, take a walk together - once a week is a good goal. Start with a small change, and gradually incorporate more as you are comfortable. I really do believe that small changes yield big results.