Connor Wilusz packs a school lunch that is a lesson in healthy eating.

The 4-year-old arrived for his first day of preschool last week carrying carrots, Greek yogurt with granola and other tasty, nutritious goodies in his backpack.

The Pittsfield youngster just craves most fruits and vegetables put in front of him, according to his father James Wilusz.

"He eats them all," said the proud papa. "We've worked hard to get him to eat healthy."

Connor has been well-schooled on developing healthy eating habits at an early age, with Wilusz being the director of the Lee-based Tri-Town Health Department and his wife Kimberly Kelly working in the health care field.

Rachel Alves finds parental guidance is the key ingredient to children eating right, especially when away from home.

Before making a school lunch that could be traded with another student -- or tossed in the trash -- the on-staff dietitian for Gudio's Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield and Great Barrington urges moms and dads to talk with their sons and daughters about their food likes and dislikes.

"You must have a conversation with your children, even have a contract with them stating they will eat well," she said. "Plan ahead their lunch and be creative."

Whether brown bagging or buying lunch in the school cafeteria, the students' midday meal has been the focal point of improving children's health the past couple of years.

New federal nutrition guidelines launched two years ago were aimed, in part, to have school district across the country offer healthy alternatives to cheese pizza, French fries and other high-calorie food that had become the menu du jour for students.

Changes in school lunch programs, as stated in a recent USA Today report, are aimed at taking a bite out of the growing number of obese American children and adolescents. Since 1980, the obesity rate of this age group has tripled to 17 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new standards have been criticized by some parents, student and school administrators as too costly and rigid.

As public schools wrestle with the need for a nutrition upgrade, parents providing a homemade school lunches are also looking to balance their budget with what they feed their offspring.

"It's a misconception to eat healthy is expensive," said Alves, who noted prepackaged foods can cost more than fresh fruit and vegetables.

Another myth, children will find healthy food bland. Alves said passing the taste test is about the right combination of nutritiously good food that's pleasing to the palate.

"If kids will eat celery with a nut butter, they get fiber and protein," she said.

A school lunch must also be a no-hassle dining experience. Children who find certain fruits difficult too handle, may prefer peeled oranges or sliced apples.

"I was always a kid that had my apple cut in wedges ... and that has always stuck with me [in adulthood,]" Alves said.

Finally, eating healthy begins before the first bite. Alves urged parents to include their children in food shopping and preparation for a better understanding of what's good for them.

"If you eat what's in season or bring them to a farmers market, that helps," she said. "If kids participate in making the meals, they are more apt to try new things."

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Pesto chicken salad pitas

A mediterranean spin on chicken salad

Recipe by Jessica Cox, RD and the American Dietetic Association

 

1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise

3 tablespoons prepared pesto

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon pepper

2 cups chopped, cooked chicken

1/2 cup grated carrot (about 1 medium carrot)

4 mini whole wheat pita rounds, split

1 cup baby spinach leaves

Combine mayonnaise, pesto, lemon juice and pepper in a medium bowl; whisk until well blended. Add chicken and carrots, stir to combine.

Stuff each pita evenly with spinach and chicken salad mixture.

To reach Dick Lindsay:

rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,

or (413) 496-6233