Now, what I think is the hardest part of making sure our children are healthy when they go back to school – their nutrition and their lunches!
Before Claire started school at age 3, she was loved and well cared for by 2 different nannies since birth who helped to feed her while I was busy working full time. I still remember that back then, before I was much more aware of the importance of diet and dietary habits in our children, I basically made sure that our refrigerator and pantry was stocked with the typical items any mother would think of for meals: cold cuts, peanut butter and jelly, cheese sticks/baby Bell cheeses, and sometime leftovers from what I cooked for dinner the night before. Before “A Healthier Wei”, I know grilled cheese and mac n’ cheese was a staple for Claire and our nannies as a lunch option. While I never bought much frozen chicken nuggets, I will blame Dave for us always having some frozen “Jack’s” pizza as lunch options for him, as he really likes it. I remember those early years when I would buy premade waffles, pancakes, etc, which the nanny could simply warm up for her for breakfast, along with bacon/sausage, etc. She never loved eggs. The only thing I did right back then was always insist that she received fresh fruit at every meal, as I would cut up honeydews, cantaloupes, pineapple, and our frig was full of other fresh fruits and berries.
Once she started going staying through lunch at Montessori, I remember the nightly ritual of packing her lunch in her Hello Kitty lunchbox. I made sure there was a drink, “Capri Sun”, or 100 % juice in a juice box of some sort (grape, apple), and of course, over the past few years I have made myself a victim of pretty much making turkey and cheese or PB and J as her main lunch option. Once I made her a cute Tupperware of steak chunks from dinner the night before, and the Tupperware and steak bits came home untouched because other kids made fun of her. This provided a great opportunity to discussion on why we should not care what other kids say or do, in case they were not as privileged to have experienced other foods like tofu. I confess that the next day I packed her even more “weird” stuff like firm Tofu curds and rice, hoping to inspire some ridicule by other children so that she may practice her self-defense verbally. I always had some fruit, and a “sweet” of some sort, as if without it I am a bad mother.
Her teacher used to call me on and off to tell me that Claire described lunch coming back up into her throat. I must admit that it took a while before I realized that she was experiencing reflux depending on what I would pack. The most common offender would be if I made a lunch with apple juice, turkey cold cuts, with a couple of Oreo cookies. Think about it, the sugar content was so high between the 3 items, that she would have too much acidity and then proceed to have indigestion and backwash. As I tell many of my patient’s parents, I am so proud that as of over 2 years ago, I stopped buying ANY pouch drinks of any kind, or any juice boxes of any kind. (Except rare parties when lots of kids are around, this is for very special occasions like Halloween or birthday parties, not sure why expect I think people expect it and it’s easy).
This year, I have already been stressed about what to pack her. The good news is last year during first grade, I had some successes with Tupperware full of grape tomatoes, fresh mozzarella chunks, drizzle of lemon juice/olive oil and fresh basil leaf chopped up, and bit of fresh lemon rind, salt and pepper. (This child loves salt!). She will eat that, and she will eat sometimes leftovers which unfortunately unless it’s chicken or beef, I don’t pack it as there is no way to microwave or heat the food. I always explain to her about my wonderful childhood where every Taiwanese child ‘s parents and caretakers packed hot lunches in a metal container which the school steamed for them so all lunches were hot without processed foods. Those were the good ol’ days, now there is Pizza Hut and McDonald’s all over the streets of Taipei. As for Claire, I think there may be PB&J again in our future, as well as even some ham/cheese on bread. But she knows I will only pack water, no more than 1 cookie, and fresh fruit (whole or cut up) for every day. Crackers are also good snacks. I used to pack chips but so loaded in salt and preservatives and so highly processed that despite my history of a Cheetos addiction (now clean for over 6 months again….) I will not pack that as a lunch item daily.
The truth is, nothing about our industry makes it easy for us moms and dads. Items that will not spoil in the hot and humid weather are likely highly preserved or processed, and items that are not going to “rot” either require refrigeration or reheating. Then there is the entire issue of Pizza Hut or other fast food chains contracting with our public school system to bring in “hot” food for our children, which while they welcome and love it, it’s likely poor nutrition especially when all that high fat and high salt food tastes best when washed down with soda. I will ask Nancy to write a guest blog about the truth about school lunches. She has worked for years as a nutritionist who helped to design lunch menus and checked for government compliance when it comes to school lunches in large metropolitan U.S. cities. Back to Claire, who has sadly been denied all “Lunchables”, all cheese sticks, any prepackaged lunch of any kind, and will likely get sick of what I make her. Oh well, let’s hope she’ll be very hungry for a home made nutricious dinner.
Dr. Julie Wei is a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist and the author of A Healthier Wei. As a mother herself, Dr. Wei is a passionate advocate for improving children's health through better diet and dietary habits. She has been committed to helping parents learn how to eliminate their child's ear, nose, and throat problems simply by reducing excessive sugar and dairy intake, as well as minimizing habitual late night snacking. She hopes to raise awareness for the need for accountability by both medical professionals and parents to ensure that children are not prescribed or take unnecessary medications long term.
When she is not in the clinic, operating room, or conducting research, you will find her in the kitchen preparing food with love along with her daughter Claire. If you sit next to her on the plane, she will likely share with you information about how to minimize choking hazards in young children, and many other tips for improving your child's health.