Lunch time is the social hour for kids in school. It’s also a critical time to load up on calories. But are students getting enough nutrients to fill their bellies and feed their brains? Sandrine Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, doesn’t think so.
She says school cafeteria food can be unhealthy since it tends to be high in fat and sodium. It also lacks nutritional value thanks to popular staples like pizza and French fries. Home-packed lunches are not much better. They may also be high in fat and sugar due to the inclusion of kids’ favorite chips, cookies, flavored milk and soda.
“This combination of unhealthy foods may not only be contributing to the high rates of obesity, diabetes and other health conditions among young kids,” says Fitzgerald. “It may also be keeping kids from learning and staying focused.”
To help parents ensure their children eat well-balanced packed lunches that will boost brain power and energy levels, Fitzgerald offers these tips:
Make healthy eating a habit at home
When children are used to eating foods from all food groups—fruits and vegetables, dairy, beans and whole grains— they are more willing to eat those same foods for lunch anywhere, including school.
Involve children in meal preparation, including their lunches
This won’t only make kids feel more helpful in the kitchen, but they’ll be more likely to want to eat the lunches they helped pack.
Give kids a choice
When packing lunch, ask your child which healthy option they would prefer—such as a banana or strawberries. By giving them a choice, they learn how to compromise and hone their decision-making skills.
Using the five food groups as a guide, toss in whole grain crackers with peanut butter; cut-up veggies with hummus; Greek yogurt with berries or a slice of cheese on top of whole grain bread, pita bread or tortillas. The goal is to have variety, color and to include three-to-five of the food groups at each meal.
Turn snack foods into a meal
Pack a small serving of cottage cheese with fruit, nuts, dried fruit or trail mix. Include sliced vegetables or even whole grain cereal.
Nix juice and soda
As much as kids love drinking soda and juice, water is the best drink for them. Fat-free or 1 percent milk is also a good option, since it’s packed with calcium and vitamin D. Juice should be offered in moderation—not at every meal.
As a parent, Fitzgerald can empathize with parents’ busy schedules. She suggests keeping lunch light and simple. “It doesn’t have to be elaborate to be nutritious,” she says.
For parents who rely on school cafeteria food for their kids, Fitzgerald is pleased there have been improvements in recent years. Thanks to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Let’s Move!, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and other initiatives, cafeteria menus are becoming more nutritious and balanced.
“Milk choices have changed with whole milk being replaced with plain low-fat or fat-free milk, which is a big change and a victory toward healthier lunches” she adds. “Now we need to provide more whole grain options in schools instead of refined grains and keep offering more fresh fruits and vegetables.”
While there’s no stopping kids from trading lunch items with their friends, Fitzgerald highly recommends parents be role models for healthy eating and become more involved when it comes to their kids’ food choices.
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