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Tips and tricks for making healthy snacks your kids will love 

Advice for making healthy school lunches and snacks your kids will eat

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Story by Family Features, with additional reporting by Kandace Power Graves

As you're gearing up for a new school year, it's a perfect time to stock the pantry with healthy lunch options and after-school snacks and to reinvent the traditional brown bag lunch so it's more nutritious (and fun). Some local grocery stores have tools to help.

  Robert Fresh Market (135 Robert E. Lee Blvd., 504-282-3428; 5016 W. Esplanade Ave., Metairie, 504-885-7005; 8115 S. Claiborne Ave., 504-488-0536; www.robertfreshmarket.com) provides the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System, which evaluates the nutritional values of different items on a scale of one to 100 (with 100 being the most nutritious) and diplays the score on shelf price tags, making it easy to compare options.

  Having an easy nutrition reference can simplify assembling lunches that are better for kids.

  "I always recommend small steps to parents," says Marisa Paolillo, a nutritionist at NuVal. "A good place to start is swapping the same types of food. For instance, NuVal scores for yogurt can range from seven to 100, depending on sugar content and other factors. It's easy to swap a low-scoring product for a higher-scoring one, and kids probably won't notice the difference."

  Paolillo also suggests talking with your kids about the selections you make at the grocery store. Engaging them in the process teaches them to make better food choices when they're away from home. The company's website, www.nuval.com, provides ideas for swapping items, recipes and more.

  Whole Foods Market (300 N. Broad St., 504-434-3365; 3420 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, 504-888-8225; 5600 Magazine St., 504-899-9119; www.wholefoodsmarket.com) also has a stockpile of tips, recipes and nutrition information on its website, including a healthy eating guide that explains the nutritional value of foods, information about organic and hormone-free foods, tips for eating healthy on a budget, nutrition needs of kids and teens and recipes for a variety of occasions.

  "Taste does not have to be sacrificed when preparing a healthy meal for kids," says Whole Foods spokeswoman Kristina Bradford. "At each Whole Foods Market Louisiana store, we have a healthy eating educator who can show parents kid-friendly recipes, provide tours and one-on-one consultations, and share ways to tweak recipes and make them healthier and still tasty."

  The company's Whole Kids Foundation (www.wholekidsfoundation.org) was formed to raise money to provide salad bars in Louisiana schools. So far it has funded 114 salad bars across the state, and provided 17 grants to develop school gardens. Whole Kids also has online games and information about healthy eating and more.

  When it comes to snacks, Whole Foods advises keeping them quick and easy, stocking your pantry and fridge with foods kids can grab and eat without help, such as:

   Finger foods like grapes, strawberries, cherries, raspberries and cherry tomatoes

   Easy-to-handle fruits like apples, pears, plums and bananas

   Baby carrots, pre-cut bell peppers and radishes, bite-sized chunks of squash and celery, with optional dips or spreads

   • String cheese, cheese cubes or pre- sliced cheese

   • Low-fat yogurt

   • Hard-boiled eggs

   • Nuts and seeds, dried fruit and trail mix

   • Cereal and granola

   vPopcorn

   • Soy or rice crisps

   • High-fiber whole wheat crackers

   • Applesauce

   • Fruit strips

  After-school snacks need to be satisfying and fun, but not full of sugar, salt and unneeded fat. Instead of grabbing a bag of cookies or chips from a vending machine, have a healthy alternative available that's delicious and satisfying.

  "Better food options keep energy levels high in-between meals," says Nancy Siler, vice president of consumer affairs at Wilton Products, a bakery products company. "By planning ahead with healthy snacks or mini meals, you can have great choices available, even with a chaotic schedule."

  She suggests sneaking vegetables into baked recipes. Many vegetables have a natural sweetness, she says, and your family won't taste the difference. Try sweet potato cupcakes, carrot and zucchini cookies or squash and banana mini muffins (see recipe on p. 14).

  Kids like to get creative, Wilton says, and can make their own snacks by using cookie cutters on low-fat cheese slices and whole grain bread or tortillas. They can make funny faces on a sandwich using natural peanut butter, raisins and fruit, like sliced bananas, apples or pears. It's OK to play with your food, as long as you eat it.

 For more tips on lunches and a nutrition chart from Whole Foods Market, visit www.bestofneworleans.com.

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Squash & banana mini muffins

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup quick oats (uncooked)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1-1/4 cups thawed frozen pureed winter squash
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup mashed banana  (about two medium bananas)
1 egg
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare mini muffin pan with vegetable pan spray. In large bowl, stir together flour, oats, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice. In medium bowl, whisk together squash, sugar, banana, egg and oil. Make a well in center of flour mixture; whisk in squash mixture until just combined. Stir in cranberries. Fill muffin cups 2/3 full with batter. Bake 12 to 14 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center of muffin comes out clean.

Makes four dozen


Creamy fruit dip

Ingredients:

2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen and thawed)
1/3 cup light cream cheese
1 tablespoon apricot preserves

Place blueberries, cream cheese and apricot preserves in a food processor or blender and whirl until smooth. Serve as a dip with sliced fruit or use as a dessert sauce spooned over cut-up fruit.

Yields 2 cups

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