Once again we are in the midst of back-to-school season when crayons, glue sticks, pencils, and scissors fly off the shelves, and parents rush to check off the never ending school supplies lists. But one item that can easily be overlooked in the business of everything else is something that is very important to a child’s day and lasts throughout the entire year; school lunch.
For many lunch may not seem like it requires much thought or preparation. After all, it is easy to send kids to school with a Lunchables® and a drink, or perhaps with money to buy lunch. Providing kids with not just fuel, but quality fuel can help them stay focused and energized throughout the day. A healthy lunch establishes healthy eating habits at a young age. Fortunately, many schools are making an effort to provide healthier lunch options, but sometimes there is still no telling what exactly goes into the food that is being offered.
Putting together a healthy lunch for kids can be a daunting task. However, with a little bit of planning and a few basic steps, parents can create nutritious lunches their kids will enjoy.
Here are 7 things to remember when packing school lunches:
- Include all the nutrients. Fat, carbohydrates, and protein are important in every meal to sustain energy and improve satiety (the feeling of fullness). Look for items that have healthy mono- or polyunsaturated fats over saturated and trans-fats and carbs that are higher in fiber and lower in sugar.
- Focus on food groups. Aim to provide at least one fruit and vegetable serving, one dairy serving, and one whole grain serving at lunch. Grapes, apples, baby carrots, or cherry tomatoes are great portable snacks to add to lunch. Cheese sticks and low-fat yogurt or milk help fulfill the calcium requirement and whole wheat bread or high fiber granola bars provide valuable whole grains.
- Think about the drink. Water or low-fat milk, including chocolate milk, are the best choices for a sustainable lunch. However, juice can be a good addition as long as it is 100% juice.
- Use sugar wisely. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with including a sweet treat in your child’s lunch, but be mindful of the amount of sugar in the other items you pack as well. Many snack foods that appear to be healthier, such as granola bars, breakfast bars, and yogurt, you might find are loaded with sugar. Be sure to check the food label. If cookies or candy are a must, try to find healthier versions of the other snacks that contain less sugar. You want to prevent that afternoon sleepy feeling that sugar does to a body!
- Check the ingredients list. Packaged snack foods are becoming notorious for the high amounts of chemicals and preservatives that expand their shelf life. Check the ingredient list for everything you buy. The first few ingredients should be quality ingredients that you can understand. If there is a long list of ingredients that you cannot pronounce, consider putting it back on the shelf. Watch out for ingredients such as BHT (a preservative), and artificial dyes such as Red 40, both of which are controversial additives that could have negative effects in the body.
- Not all sandwiches are created equal. White bread has next to no nutritional value and many deli meats are filled with chemical nitrates. To build a healthier sandwich, look for 100% whole wheat bread or other whole grain breads if wheat is not an option. When choosing peanut butter, choose natural versions which do not have harmful hydrogenated oils or try other butters such as almond butter or sunflower butter. If your child is not a sandwich fan, some other options are quesadillas made on a whole-wheat tortilla, white-meat chicken nuggets, or deli meat and cheese slices on whole grain crackers.
- Try some new recipes. Making food from scratch is the healthiest way to eat. It is not always economical, but if you have the time to try some new recipes, you might find that your child likes your version better than the store-bought one. Granola bars, peanut butter energy bites, and healthier cookies are all foods that you can prepare at home and pack in your child’s lunch.
Of course, to reap any of the benefits of a healthy lunch you need your kids to actually eat it, so pay attention to what they like and don’t like and try to find the healthiest versions of their favorites. It is important to remember that although the body simply needs food and water to function, it needs quality ingredients and fewer chemical additives to function optimally and stay healthy. By providing your kids with a healthy lunch every day, you will help them learn to make better choices for the rest of their lives.
For more information on healthy lunches, check out www.choosemyplate.gov.
What back to school lunch tips can you share? Share with us in the comments below.
About the blogger:
Angela Caban is an Army National Guard spouse, published author and branding expert. In 2010, she founded the Homefront United Network, a military spouse and family support blog created to assist spouses who do not live near an installation, but also focusing on bridging the gap between National Guard, Reserve and Active Duty spouses. She has an extensive background in Human Resources and Communications, with her Bachelor’s in Business Administration and a Master’s in Human Resources. Angela resides in the beautiful Garden State of New Jersey with her husband and two children.