If you are in the same boat as many parents in the throes of back to school busyness, figuring out what to send for lunch with your child is just one of many things on your checklist. It can be challenging to ensure that your child’s lunch tastes good, has variety, isn’t full of empty calories and will keep them going until after-school amidst all the other preparations around activities, carpools, school supplies and clothes. What you put in your kid’s school lunch is one of the most important areas you can focus on as you kick off the school year because good nutrition lays the foundation for performing well in the classroom and on the field. Commit to feeding your child well not just at home but at school, and you fuel them for success in the other things that matter.
So assuming we all agree good nutritious lunches are important for our kids, you think you’ve got it down – ham and cheese sandwich, or the perennial favorite, PB&J, perhaps a cheese stick, some chips and a juice box? True, you may have determined that this combo is what your kids will eat maybe for a few weeks, and generally seems healthy, but how long before you start hearing complaints like, “Same thing again?” or “Can I have money to buy lunch at school – they have burgers and pizza” or worse yet, the lunchbox come back home at the end of the day with the sandwich half eaten or untouched and the chips and juice box gone? The good news is there are ways to avoid these food fatigue pitfalls and make this school year the best year of school lunches yet. There is also room for improvement if your typical sack lunch. Read on for how to keep your kids satisfied and well-fueled.
- Be inclusive but don’t invite the bad kids. No one likes being left out, including food groups. This means grains, fruits, veggies, protein and dairy should be represented in the lunch box on most days. Sugary soft drinks and candy should not make a regular appearance in the lunch box – they are not a food group.
- Earn the A+. Within each food group, go for the best. If your child brings home a C- on their math test, would that be acceptable to you? Only give them the best possible. Grains should be whole grains, fruits should be fresh or without added sugar, veggies (if they make it in the bag that should almost be considered extra credit…), and lunchmeats should be lean and without nitrates and nitrites. Not all cheeses are created equal, so start shifting from processed American to part-skim mozzarella or reduced/light cheddar varieties if you haven’t already.
- Think outside the lunchbox. There is room for creativity within the framework of including all food groups. For variety, try tortillas instead of bread and make a wrap instead of a sandwich. Proteins don’t always have to be lunchmeat. Try hummus instead as kids like the smooth texture. If you child has not transitioned to whole wheat bread, there are white whole wheat sliced bread options at every grocery store that have the fiber, but also the softer texture of white bread that kids love. For fruit and veggies, you’d be surprised what cutting it up will do. A whole apple or orange may come home untouched, but slice it up ahead of time or buy pre-sliced bagged fresh fruit and you’ll be surprised what happens.
At this point, you may be thinking if I go for the best nutritionally, my child may not eat it. Remember that the key to success is that food must be kid friendly, which means easy to eat, familiar and tasty. By cutting up fruit and veggies sticks (try cucumber, jicama, sweet red bell pepper strips), you make it easy. If you regularly serve up whole grains and fruits and veggies at home, it should be familiar. And if you keep the lunch fresh which an ice-pack in an insulated lunch bag, lettuce will still be crisp and cold and the tuna salad firm and not slimy when the lunch bell rings.
Everyone likes an occasional surprise, so if there are extra homemade cookies left over from a weekend celebration, it’s ok to drop one in the lunch box from time to time, as long as it’s not a regular occurrence.
Lastly, let your kids pick out a water bottle of their choice. Hello kitty, princesses, Ben 10 bottles notwithstanding, encourage your kids to drink water as their primary go-to beverage. 100% juice as part of the kid diet works, but 4-6 ounce per day is generally enough which means multiple juice boxes and juice drink packs which are not 100% shouldn’t always make the team.
To learn more about balanced eating for kids, or to get your kids engaged in helping you plan their meals, check out http://www.choosemyplate.gov/kids/
Coming soon – Specific recipes or ideas for lunchbox hits
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.