Schools are supposed to comply with specific nutritional guidelines, as set out by the National School Lunch Program. Lunch is supposed to contain no more than 30% of calories from fat and 10% from saturated fat, should have a source of protein and a serving of calcium. While this is all well and good, the unfortunate truth about school lunches is that they do not make the nutritional grade.
Have you ever seen what’s served in the cafeteria? I have – first-hand, as I spent 6 weeks during my nutrition field hours in a public school cafeteria. Pizza, Chicken tenders and french fries, hamburgers, salad with full-fat dressing. Kid-friendly (so it sells), but not figure-friendly. And what about the “extra” stuff that is also sold, but not as part of the school lunch program? Schools also sell cookies, candy, baked goods, soda, and sports drinks. These items are not only big sellers, but an added source of revenue for schools. The bottom line is this: if your child is eating from the cafeteria, he/she is likely taking in close to 1,000 calories of high sodium, high fat, low fiber calories during lunch.
What to do?
As most parents, I’m sure you are an advocate for your child, including decisions regarding their health. Take charge of this situation by saying “No” to school lunches and “Yes” to brown-bagging it. Whether your child is in pre-school, elementary, middle, or high school, they will benefit physically and mentally from a healthy, homemade lunch.
Making lunch doesn’t have to be a time-consuming ordeal. In fact, make it easier on you by getting the kids involved. Sit down with them and make a list of all of the things they would like to eat. They may need a little help from you with some ideas, but you’ll walk away from the discussion with options so that you’re not making the same thing every day.
What to pack?
Every lunch should contain a source of whole grain: whole wheat bread/English muffin/pita bread/tortilla, brown rice, quinoa, whole-grain pasta.
Lean protein: turkey breast, chicken breast, hard-boiled egg, beans, hummus, light string cheese, light shredded cheese.
Fruit & Veggies:Make sure to include 1 piece of fruit;1 snack-size baggie of veggies with hummus/black bean dip/guacamole/salsa; layer veggies onto your sandwich or stuff them into a pita or wrap; a bottle of Fruit 2 day.
Water: Keep them hydrated by packing a 1 liter bottle or 2 (16 oz.) bottles. A great trick to keeping the food nice and chilled is to freeze a bottle of water and then use it as the ice pack. The ice will thaw during the morning, leaving your child with water to drink and a lunch kept nice and cool.
Snacks: Always pack a snack for your child, as they do need a mid-morning pick-me-up. Good ideas include fruit, nuts, or a healthy energy bar. My favorites include Kashi, Lara, Kind, Pure, Zing, and Gnu. Stay away from bars that are coated in chocolate or full of candy bits.
Skip the treats: Kids do not need dessert in the middle of the day, so keep the cookies, candy bars, and the like out of their lunches.
The bottom line: Kids spend very little time eating lunch, as they’d rather be off with their friends playing (elementary school age) or “hanging out” (middle & high school). Knowing this, please don’t pack too much stuff. Usually a sandwich/salad/pasta salad and a piece of fruit is enough. If you pack the main course full of healthy, well-balanced stuff, then they’re good to go.