Healthy Food Is on the Menu at School
by Mommy MD Guide Jennifer Gardner, MD
The new school year is just that, a new year, so we think this is the perfect time to institute some new “school year” resolutions. One great place to start is in the school lunchroom. If your kids are attending school full time now, then they will be eating at least one meal away from home.
If your kids buy lunch from the school cafeteria, this may be the first time that they will get to choose their food without your direct input. But you can still exert some direct control over their meals if they brown bag their lunch (but recognize that they still might trade it). Each provides a great opportunity for you to teach your kids about healthy food choices and the importance of food. Below are some helpful guidelines for getting your kids to eat healthier at school.
Don’t Forget to Have Your Kids Eat Breakfast
Regardless of what you make for lunch or what the school is serving, please make sure that your kids have a nutritious breakfast before they leave the house in the morning. This will assure that they have the nutrition and calories they need to focus on their school tasks and to last until lunch. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day!
Parents have many options for sending their kids off to school with a healthy lunch. It is all about balance and variety. Each lunch should include a healthy combination of lean protein, low-fat dairy, whole grains, and fruit and veggies. Whatever you choose, be sure to include your kids in the process of making the meal. Discuss with them the importance of nutritious and healthy meals and the right portion sizes, and have them help you pack the meal. This will help ensure they eat what you pack!
Classic sandwich choices include PB&J or PB & banana, chicken salad, tuna salad, egg salad, sliced chicken, or turkey. When sandwiches are on the menu, make sure that you use whole grain bread or pita, and mustard or low-fat mayonnaise when appropriate.
To vary things, you might want to try a pita packed with hummus and vegetables, sliced hard-boiled eggs, nut butter, avocado, or any other favorite protein. A whole grain tortilla loaded with beans, cheese, and favorite grilled veggies is another option. Sandwiches are an obvious way to add some veggies. Tomatoes, onions, lettuce, sprouts, cucumber, and sliced or shredded carrots are a great place to start.
You should also include one of the following in the bag: some whole or cut up fruit, dried fruit, a small salad, assorted veggie sticks, single serving applesauce, yogurt, nuts, seeds, or popcorn to round out the meal. And remember, once in a while, it is okay to send them with a small bag of potato chips, corn chips, or cheese puffs to avoid feelings of deprivation or envy!
Alternatively, you can pack a bento box full of food from home. Almost any leftover is a great option (meatloaf or meatballs for a sandwich, lasagna, omelets, quiches or frittatas, baked chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, BBQ or baked chicken, tacos, quesadillas, burritos, stir fries, sloppy Joes, salmon or crab cakes, pot pies). You can also include a salad, hummus, cut fruit, sliced veggies with dip or guacamole, cubed hard cheese, yogurt, trail mix, nuts, homemade pumpkin bread, or many other choices too numerous to list here. Kabobs are also fun in bentos and can be made from chicken, beef, or shrimp plus veggies. Or why not try fresh fruit or fresh veggie kabobs? Lastly, consider hearty soups, stews, and chilies (especially inviting when summer fades into a fall chill).
Avoid sending your kids off to school with prepackaged lunches such as Lunchables. Also limit the amount of highly processed deli meats (salami, bologna, ham, liverwurst, or deli “loaves”) by choosing whole roasted turkey, chicken, or roast beef. Processed deli meats are very high in salt, fat, sugar, additives, and preservatives. Plus, they are not cost effective. We also recommend that you avoid packing a dessert for most lunches. But of course, occasionally send them off with a cookie, pudding, or brownie!
Tips for Packaging a Safe Lunch
We want to pack healthy school lunches for our children, but we must also make sure that they are safe. Since your kids’ lunches usually remain at room temperature for several hours, you should take steps to minimize bacterial contamination and growth. Here are some steps you can take:
- Seems obvious, but you should always wash your hands before preparing the meal.
- Use insulated lunch containers over a brown bag if you’re serving perishable items (such as mayonnaise-based sandwiches or salads, dips, and dressings).
- Use an icepack to keep food at a safe temperature.
- Alternatively, you can put frozen juice or (preferably) water in the lunch bag. The drink will thaw by lunchtime, so this can be used in place of an ice pack. (You can also freeze a yogurt stick to use as an ice pack.)
- Use a thermos to keep hot things (soups, stews, chilies, casseroles) hot and cold things cold.
- Store the lunch bag in a cool area, away from sunny windows or heat vents. Use a refrigerator if available.
- Keep all lunch boxes, bento boxes, bags, and thermoses clean. Wash with warm soap and water after each use and dry thoroughly.
- Make sure your kids wash their hands before eating. Alcohol gels or wipes can be used in a pinch. (If you’re storing these in the lunch container, use wipes, not gels.)
- Teach kids that they should not trade items in their lunch (and then keep your fingers crossed that they follow your instructions).
To compete with cafeteria lunch options, keep foods colorful and interesting (use cookie cutters to make sandwiches into fun shapes, leave lunch notes for little ones, pack in a favorite lunch box, or occasionally include an unexpected favorite breakfast food such as waffles with Nutella and bananas).
When a homemade lunch is not an option, your kids can choose from the menu at school. Many schools now serve healthier items, such as grilled chicken and salads. But some choices still contain unhealthy amounts of fat, salt, or sugar.
Most schools also now post the weekly menu online or make it otherwise available to parents so they can see what is on the menu. Some even allow parents to check what the child has purchased!
If your school is among them, take advantage of this to discuss with kids the importance of healthy eating and nutritious foods. Ask which meals they particularly like or want to try. Make sure to point out what is the best choice, and once in a while, let your child pick out what he or she wants despite your input! Just let them know that the healthier foods will give them more energy for the rest of the school day and for after-school activities.
Counsel your kids to choose meals that contain fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. Advise them to avoid fried foods (chicken fingers, french fries, fried chicken or fish) and heavily processed foods (hot dogs, lunch meats, processed cheeses, potato or corn chips, and commercial baked goods). They should also avoid sugary drinks, including fruit juices and sweet teas, and drink water or low-fat milk instead.
But at the same time, let them be kids too. Remember to allow them to make their own choices from time to time. Otherwise, they will feel stifled and rebel entirely against your efforts to help them build healthy eating habits!
Alternate bagged lunch days with cafeteria lunch days to maximize variety while still retaining significant control over what your kids eat. Done well, your kids will internalize the lessons they learn from you and from the choices they make on their own. This will help them be healthy for life.
Dr. Gardner is a mom of a three-year-old son, a pediatrician, and the founder of an online child wellness and weight management company, HealthyKidsCompany.com, in Washington, DC.