Healthy School Lunch IdeasThe Hood Answer Mom, Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.
School lunch is often criticized for being less nutritious than brown bag meals sent from home. But recent studies, including one published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, suggest the opposite.
When researchers compared packed lunches to guidelines for school lunch set by the National School Lunch Program, they found that, overall, lunches from home did not measure up. Brown bag mid-day meals tended to have more sugar, fat, and sodium, and fewer servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And they often cost more to make than school lunch.
Highly processed choices may be one of the reasons why brown bag lunches miss the mark for nutrition. Lunch often gets lost in the hustle and bustle of getting kids off to school, and it’s easy to toss foods like pre-packaged lunches with fatty meats, refined grains, and sugary fruit drinks (not 100% fruit juice) into a bag and forget about fresh fruits and vegetables.
Lunch: Easy, Better Choices
More than 40% of children bring their lunch to school on any given day. If your child is one of them, here are some tips for healthier noonday meals.
Make it Milk
Pack Hood 1% Lowfat Milk or Hood Premium 1% Lowfat Chocolate Milk in a thermos, or provide money for your child to purchase milk at school. No worries if your child prefers flavored milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that, as part of a balanced eating plan, added sugar cannot be blamed as the single cause of childhood obesity, and that some added sugar can actually help increase the quality of a child’s diet. A bit of sweetness may prompt kids to drink more milk, which is rich in protein, calcium, vitamin D, and several other nutrients.
Balance It Out
Healthy lunches include the right amounts of protein, found in lean meats, poultry, dairy, soy, and beans, along with fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. For example, a turkey, nut butter, or sunflower seed butter sandwich on whole grain bread with fruit and milk makes a fine lunch.
Think Outside the Box
Some children don’t like sandwiches for lunch. One of my daughters takes only leftovers to school, while another loved it when I packed her thermos with condensed tomato soup prepared with milk instead of water, and added cooked macaroni. Here are some other suggestions for children who think outside of the box:
• Whole grain cereal, milk (purchased at school or brought from home), fruit
• 8 ounces Greek yogurt, whole wheat crackers, fruit
• Hummus, whole grain crackers, cherry tomatoes
• Hood Cottage Cheese, whole grain roll, fruit or vegetables
• Bean-based soup or stew in a thermos, whole grain roll, dried fruit
• Egg salad or 1-2 hard cooked, peeled eggs, whole wheat bagel, fruit
Involve your child
Allow your child to choose and prepare their lunch, preferably the night before to ease the morning chaos. Ask them to think about how much food they need at lunch. When one of my daughters was in elementary school, she told me that a full sandwich was too much because she ate a mid-morning snack, so we cut back to half a sandwich until she was older.