Back to School Lunches

In many parts of the country, school bells are ringing again. That means early mornings, homework, and the dreaded dilemma – a brown-bag lunch or the hot lunch at school.

For decades, school kids have dreaded opening up their lunch bags and boxes, wondering what boring lunch would be there for the eating. Many a trade has taken place – swapping sandwiches for chips, cookies, or whatever they could get their hands on. Those same kids would look upon the “lucky” ones, those who were carrying their trays straight from the lunch line, the hot-lunch kids. Pizza, chicken nuggets, tater tots, hot dogs, hamburgers. And chocolate milk. Boy, oh boy, sounds like the lunch of champions!

Now, if you haven’t already caught on to my sarcasm, you need to know that I am not a fan of the hot lunch being offered at the majority of the schools, both private and public. These lunches are not nutritious, despite supposedly adhering to the government “recommendations.”  The lunches being served to our children are full of processed foods, sugar, fat, saturated fat, white flour, with minimal fruits and vegetables being offered. And those fruits and vegetables that are offered are some of the least nutritious as they are the cheapest. Iceberg lettuce, red delicious apples (which are not delicious anymore, but mealy and flavorless). Sure the tomatoes and carrots in the salads are healthy, but when the kids douse them in ranch dressing, how healthy have they become?  It’s like taking two steps forward and fours steps back. And let’s not forget what they wash it all down with – chocolate milk. Sugared milk. With the obesity epidemic growing in this country, who thinks it’s okay to give our kids sugar in the middle of the day? What’s wrong with giving kids a bottle of water?

My kids have never bought a hot lunch at school, I am proud to say. And eventhough the older ones are entering high school, it will stay that way. In order to prevent the whining and negotiations that are bound to take place (Pleeeease mom, all the other kids eat hot lunch. But mom, I’ll be the only one without a hot lunch. All the other kids will think I’m weird. You get the point.),  you have to make your kids excited to eat what’s being packed for them.

Tips to get kids excited about lunch

Once a week, sit down with your kids and make a list of lunches that they would like to see each day of the week. That way you will be organized with all of the ingredients and makes the food preparation time much shorter. After the menu is created, take your kids to the grocery store to help pick out the food. Kids who are involved in food purchasing and preparation are much more likely to be adventurous eaters.

What constitutes a healthy lunch?

Packing a lunch with staying power is crucial to keeping their energy levels up and brain focused. A lunch with smart carbs and fiber (whole grains, fruit, veggies) will give them energy, lean protein (turkey, egg, beans, nut butters) will help that energy level stay elevated for a longer period of time. And of course, pack them plenty of water. Keeping kids well-hydrated is crucial to promoting good energy levels and to preventing dehydration, especially in the very warm first month of school. Don’t pack a  sweet treat nor a juice box/fruit punch pouch, or soda in your child’s lunch. They do not need the sugar and empty calories that they provide.

Lunch ideas

  • Turkey pinwheel sandwich (whole wheat flat bread, such as Flat Out) filled with  lettuce, tomato, avocado, mustard; roll up and slice into “pinwheel” shapes; bowl of watermelon chunks; water
  • Skewers of string cheese pieces, grape tomatoes, and melon chunks. Serve with whole wheat mini pita and hummus; water
  • Tacos – two corn tortillas filled with chicken, black beans, salsa, and guacamole. Serve with a bowl of mango and pineapple chunks; water
  • Almond butter and banana sandwich on whole wheat bread, cut into triangles or cute shapes with cookie cutters.
  • On cold days, ladle up some vegetarian chili into a thermos and serve with a piece of corn bread; water

Keep it cold

A recent study of packed school lunches showed that over 90% were at a dangerous temperature by the time lunch was served. Most lunches, even those with an ice pack, were at a temperature that promoted bacterial growth (40-140 degrees F), which could increase the risk of a food-borne illness. If refrigerators are an option at your child’s school, ask to have the lunch placed there in the morning. If not, consider putting two ice packs in your child’s lunch or try using a frozen water bottle, which will slowly thaw during the morning.

Start the day off right

Just as important as packing a nutritious and delicious lunch, is feeding your kids a smart breakfast. Mom always said, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Kids who eat a healthy breakfast have more energy and are able to focus and concentrate in school better than kids who eat nothing or eat a nutrient-poor breakfast (doughnuts, toaster pastry). The best breakfast is one that is high in protein (eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, nut butter), with a piece of fruit and a serving of whole grains (oatmeal, whole wheat toast, high fiber cereal). Washing it down with some green tea or water is ideal. Nonfat milk or 100% juice is another option. 

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