For parents, thinking about lunches is a key part of preparing for the new school year. The biggest question is: Are they going to buy or bring, and which is healthier? The purpose of lunch is to fuel your child’s brain for the afternoon classes and to fuel their bodies for after-school activities. You want to provide your child with a nutrient-rich meal that has lasting energy.
In 2008, the Institute of Medicine discovered that those who ate school lunches consumed few fruits and vegetables and high amounts of saturated fat and sodium. Changes have been made to improve this thanks to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. School lunches are now looking more like the healthy eating message conveyed by the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guide, which replaced the old food pyramid diagrams.
You want half your plate to contain fruits and vegetables, ¼ of your plate to contain a lean protein and the other ¼ to be a whole grain or starchy vegetable. Each meal should also include a low-fat dairy item. Schools are required to serve meals that fit this pattern. If you are bringing lunch from home, keep the MyPlate guide in mind to ensure they are also getting a nutrient-rich meal.
Get your kids involved in planning and preparing their lunch. Look at the school menu, and ask them which days they want to buy or bring. If they will be bringing their lunch from home, ask them to list several items in each food group from the MyPlate visual that they like. For example, lean protein options might include lean deli meat, tuna, or a hard-boiled egg. Keep a variety of those items on hand. Have your child help you assemble the lunch the night before including a lean protein, whole grain, fruit and vegetable and then either a yogurt or milk. They are more likely to eat what they bring if they have had a part in the planning.
Here are some healthy choices in each food group. The portion size would depend on the age of the child, if they also have a morning snack, and how active they will be after school. It’s a good idea to also include some water to drink. Limit added sugars by choosing more whole foods and less processed foods.
- Lean protein: lean deli meat, rotisserie chicken, tuna or chicken salad, hard-boiled egg, cheese stick, peanut butter
- Whole grains: whole wheat bread or wrap, whole grain chips or crackers, hummus
- Fruit: apple slices, banana, grapes, clementine, cut up watermelon pieces, dried fruit
- Vegetables: carrot sticks, sliced red bell pepper, celery, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, spinach leaves or romaine lettuce added to a sandwich or wrap
- Dairy: yogurt, cheese stick, cottage cheese, low-fat milk (the milk can be bought at school)
Using a list like this and choosing at least one item from each food group will ensure that your child’s lunch from home will be balanced and as nutrient rich as the school meal. So, whether you are buying or bringing, both can be healthy choices. It just takes a little planning.
Article provided by Juliana Wright, RD, LD, with Madison Hospital Wellness Center.