National Consumers League

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NCL Food Issues

Plan ahead for healthy school lunches

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Make healthy lunches a priority this fall

The days are getting shorter, the summer heat is cooling down, and vacations are wrapping up, all of which means one thing: back to school season is officially underway. Whether your young ones are dreading going back or eagerly looking forward to reuniting with old friends and favorite teachers, a healthy lunch will go a long way toward ensuring that first day back is a good one.

This year children will have healthier options available at school, thanks to the enactment of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. New guidelines mean more fruits and vegetables and more whole grains at both lunch and breakfast. Additionally, schools will be substantially cutting down on salt in meals and enforcing maximum calorie limits. These options mean that school lunches will now be a healthier alternative to packing from home.

If your child buys lunch at school, view it as an opportunity to guide him or her to choose healthy options when faced with a range of choices. To help ensure that the lunch on your student’s cafeteria tray is a healthy one, consider the following tips:

Talk nutrition. If your child knows what constitutes a healthy meal, and why it is important to eat foods that are good for him/her (having energy, staying healthy, growing, etc.), it will be easier to establish an understanding of why healthy choices are important at lunchtime. Give your child some tangible markers for creating a healthy meal: including a fruit and a vegetable, choosing whole grains over white, picking a protein source, and opting for plain milk or water over sweetened beverages.

Underscore the importance of eating lunch. Particularly for younger children, the playground, friends, and other distractions can prove more compelling than sitting down to eat. Discuss with your child how eating a healthy lunch will help him/her feel good, have energy, and be able to concentrate the rest of the day.

Review the menu. Look at the daily or weekly menu with your child and discuss which items are good choices and which are “occasional” choices. Let your child choose when he/she wants to have a special treat (for example, “pizza Mondays” or “chocolate milk Wednesdays”), and come up with a game plan for making healthier choices most of the time. It is best not to create “forbidden” foods. By planning together when your child will choose a favorite, less healthy food, you increase the likelihood that your child will stay open, truthful, and guilt-free about choices made in the cafeteria. Refrain from judging your child’s less-than-ideal choices, and instead focus on doing better next time.

When possible, packing lunch for or with your child helps ensure a healthy midday meal. Whether you pack on a daily basis, or only occasionally send your child with a homemade lunch, keep these important points in mind:

Pack a safe lunch. Ensuring a safe lunch means keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold, from the time your child leaves the house until he/she sits down to eat. Use a thermos for hot foods, such as soup, and include a cold pack with foods that need to stay chilled. If possible, pack your child’s lunch in an insulated bag. Remember not to put items that need to be hot and items that need to stay cold in the same bag. Finally, don’t forget to wash lunch bags in between uses.

Meet your child’s caloric needs. Children’s caloric needs vary greatly, depending on age, activity level, and other factors. Talk to your child’s pediatrician to get a general estimate of what his/her caloric needs are, and aim to provide one third of those calories at lunch time. Perhaps most importantly, talk to your child about whether he/she was still hungry after lunch, or had lots of leftovers. When consistently allowed to follow their bodies’ hunger signals from a young age, children have a much better chance of eating the amount they need and stopping when they are full. Include non-perishable lunch items (apples, trail mix) that can be saved for later, or even left in a backpack or locker for another day.

Pack foods your child will eat. The nutritional quality of the lunch you pack means nothing if your child refuses to eat it (or trades components away for more appealing options). Brainstorm with your child to come up with healthy options that he/she wants to eat. See if dinner leftovers, soups, or salads appeal to your child. If he/she is tired of sandwiches or more traditional lunches, think in terms of smaller “snacks” that together create a healthy meal.

  • Sample “outside the sandwich” meal: veggies and hummus, cheese cubes with whole grain crackers, and a piece of fruit provide the protein, carbohydrates, calcium, fruits and vegetables, and small amount of fat that growing children need. Be creative!

Pack healthier versions of the old stand-bys. If you have a picky eater who likes to eat the same things, day in and day out, try to up the nutritional content of lunches by making healthy substitutions that can go relatively unnoticed. Try the following swaps, and figure out the changes on which you and your child can agree:

  • Instead of high-fat lunch meats, choose lower-fat deli options such as turkey. If you face resistance, use mostly healthier deli meats with a slice of your child’s favorite for taste.
  • Swap out white bread for whole-grain bread. For picky eaters, even “white” wheat bread options are better than their white flour counterparts. When seeking out better options in the bread aisle, look for at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.
  • Substitute light mayo or mustard for full-fate mayonnaise
  • Offer baked chips, air-popped popcorn, or veggies with dip (if you can get away with it) in place of fried chips and similar snacks.
  • Offer low-fat, low-cal desserts or items with some nutritional value in place of junk. Instead of packing several cookies or a snack cake, send a favorite fruit, flavored yogurt, a small packet of fruit snacks, trail mix, or a small whole-grain muffin or cookie.

Be mindful of allergies. Check with your child’s school to ensure that there aren’t any items on the restricted list, due to other students’ allergies. Discuss with your child how food allergies make it particularly important that everyone eat the lunch that their own parent packed.