As school bells ring all over the country, moms breathe a collective sigh of relief (and do the happy dance) to have their children back in the classroom. But with this happiness also comes the dilemma known as lunch – pack it or buy it? Sure, it’s far easier to give your kids some money and have them buy the hot lunch special, but is the lack of good nutrition worth it?
We’re big proponents of cooking for our families. We take the time in the morning to make sure they have a healthy and balanced breakfast to fuel their bodies and brains for a morning filled with energy and focus (get our cookbook, “No Excuses! 50 Healthy Ways to ROCK Breakfast!” for kid-approved breakfast recipes). By lunchtime, those calories have been burned up and they need to refuel in order to make it through the rest of the school day and even into afternoon activities.
Typical School Lunch – Grade “D”
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a school that cares about good nutrition and cooks their food from scratch, the typical school lunch menu doesn’t get an “A” in nutrition. Children get to choose a hot entree (pizza, hamburgers, mac & cheese, chicken nuggets), a fruit (fresh or fruit cup), a veggie (sliced carrots or grape tomatoes), and a milk (chocolate or plain). A rough nutrition analysis of such a lunch (assuming they eat it all) would show high fat protein, refined carbs, and too much sugar (most kids pick chocolate milk) and not enough fiber and antioxidants. So, what’s the solution?
Home-made Lunch – Grade “A”
A home-made lunch doesn’t have to fall into the sandwich + fruit + chips + drink rut. Most kids get bored of the same thing every day. To have a lunch that scores top marks and rave reviews, it should contain the following items:
- Protein: chicken, turkey, tofu, cheese, yogurt (try to choose plain to avoid added sugars), beans, lentils, salmon, peanut or almond butter (if your school isn’t “nut-free”), nuts and seeds, hummus, eggs (hard-boiled or egg salad)
- Healthy Grains: quinoa, brown rice, black rice, corn tortillas, brown rice pasta, baked potato or sweet potato, corn, butternut squash, whole grain pita, whole grain bread
- Fruit: blueberries, strawberries, mango, pineapple, papaya, plums, apples, tangerines, watermelon chunks (whatever is in season)
- Vegetable: cucumbers, mini bell peppers, grape tomatoes, carrots (whatever is in season)
- Drink: water, flavored water (squeeze some lemon, lime, or orange into water bottle)
Think outside the (lunch)box
Now it’s time to build a better lunch by mixing up all sorts of combinations from the above categories, choosing at least one item from each category to make a meal.
- Pita + hummus + cucumbers, bell peppers; blueberries; water
- Quinoa salad with black beans, avocado, salsa, cilantro, and lime juice; sliced mango; water
- Chicken tacos: 2 corn tortillas filled with shredded chicken, salsa, guacamole; tangerines; water
- Leftover turkey chili (ground turkey, lots of veggies) served over brown rice; sliced pineapple; water
One of our favorite lunch tricks is to make extra food at dinner and pack the leftovers for lunch. When it’s warm outside, the kids really like a cool and crunchy salad for lunch that’s loaded with veggies, beans, chicken and quinoa. In a few months, when the weather cools considerably, we’ll be packing all sorts of chilis and stews into thermoses so they stay warm until lunchtime.
Nutrition Extra Credit
Fill your child not only with good tasting food, but food that’s good for them by choosing fruits and veggies with lots of colors. The darker the color, the more antioxidants that fruit or vegetable contains. Berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries) are often found at the top of the antioxidant charts because of their rich color. The problem with sending these fruits to school is their delicate nature – often they get knocked around and end up smashed and bruised. Freeze-dried fruit is a great option to fresh. Some of our favorites are from Crunchie’s, Funky Monkey, Crispy Green, and those found at Trader Joe’s. We also are huge fans of the new Pressed by Kind bars, which are dried fruit plus chia seeds or a combination of dried fruits and veggies (apple, pear, carrot, beet – yum!)
Control the quality and quantity of what you child eats for lunch by taking the time to pack a delicious and healthy school lunch that your child will want to eat. Get him or her involved in the decision-making process so they will be more likely to eat their lunch instead of trading or trashing it.