The ABCs of a good school lunch
A healthy breakfast is a great way for kids to start their day, but good nutrition doesn’t end when the school day begins. Proper fueling at lunchtime is also important.
“Children spend a good part of their day and eat about half their daily calories at school,” said Nicole Clark, a clinical dietician with Cape Cod Healthcare. “Packing their lunch can ensure that they are having healthy foods and foods from all the food groups.”
Cafeteria lunches follow nutrition standards set by the FDA, but some parents want to have more control over what their young ones eat.
“Packing a lunch also provides an opportunity to teach kids about healthy eating and what types of foods they should be including in their diet,” said Clark.
Here a few of her tips:
Avoid Processed Foods
Mass-manufactured lunches found at supermarkets are popular with some kids, but less so with nutritionists.
“They're generally higher in fat and sodium and are mostly processed,” said Clark. “We want to reduce the amount of processed foods that we’re eating, including cutting down on luncheon meats and things that are generally included in (the pre-made lunch kit) Lunchables.”
Good alternatives include plant-based proteins, like hummus, nuts and seeds. “Nut butters are a really good way to get some healthy plant-based protein,” she said.
Balance the Food Groups
Dedicate the largest portion of the lunch to fruits and vegetables.
“Cutting them into shapes or dipping them into things such as hummus, guacamole, or nut butters is a good way to get kids to eat more vegetables,” she said.
Go for whole grains when possible.
“Whole wheat bread, popcorn and whole oat cereals are high in fiber and low in sugars. Limit refined grains, like snack bars and sweetened cereals, or cakes and cookies.”
Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy foods to reduce the amount of saturated fat.
“Serving unflavored milks is usually a better choice. They have less added sugar and fewer calories than chocolate milk,” she said.
No-fat Greek yogurt combines protein and dairy, and you can mix fruit into it.
Engage Children in the Process
“Children tend to be more likely to eat something if they had a choice in selecting it and gave a helping hand in making it,” Clark said.
Get them involved in packing their lunches and even choosing their own fruits and vegetables at the store. Be sure to make variety one of the focuses.
“It’s true for other meals as well,” she said. “If you involve the children in getting to choose what kind of dinner they're having and helping to cook the meal, it's a good time to teach them about healthy food and trying new foods.”
Be a good role model with your own meals.
“If you're packing healthy foods in your lunch, they’re more likely to do that. A good way to ensure that you’re raising a good eater is if you're eating lots of fruits and vegetables yourself,” she said.
A paper bag works fine for a peanut butter sandwich and a banana, but some foods require better packaging. “Be sure to use a container with ice packs if you’re including fresh foods,” said Clark. “A bento box works well overall because you can use the little sections to make sure you're including things from all the food groups, and it also helps with portion control.”