By Julie Stefanski MEd, RDN, LDN, CDE
August is not only back to school time for many students, teachers, and parents, but it’s also Kids Eat Right MonthTM a celebration of the need to teach children about the importance of good nutrition.
More than 40% of U.S. kids bring their own food to school. In some aspects packing a lunch does give a parent control over what is consumed, but in a study of lunches packed by third and fourth graders a few years ago the meals lacked vegetables, fruits, and calcium containing foods. The lunches unfortunately had more than enough sugary treats and salted snack items.
If your typical back-up foods for packed lunches could be healthier, a basic place to start is to try to use more real, unprocessed food items. A meal made up of fruit snacks, a juice box, chips, and a snack cake is a mix of treats, not a good recipe for fueling their brain and body during the day. Aim for at least three different food groups on a daily basis. If you normally hit four groups good for you. And for those of you that can fit in five food groups into one meal, way to go!
Reviews of the nutritional quality of packed lunches have even found several sugar sweetened beverages in a single lunch. Choose whole fruit rather than juice. Sending a refillable water bottle that won’t spill, can help keep the soda, sports drinks, and other sugar sweetened drinks like lemonade and iced tea out of school lunch options.
Everyone needs calcium. The highest food sources in the human diet (cow’s milk, fortified plant beverages, and fish with bones) have only 30% of the daily value in a single serving. That means at least three different servings need to be included every single day to meet minimal calcium needs. If your child is not taking a calcium food or beverage along with lunch, are they making up for that somewhere else in their day?
Simple hearty crackers like the woven wheat type or whole grain gluten free options have minimal ingredients and lots of crunch. Pair with cheese cubes, sticks, or string cheese for a calcium source. It’s really simple to even send a surprise by cutting out a few shapes from a cheese block with a cookie cutter. Pack an ice pack and a milk or dairy alternative supplemented with calcium and vitamin D to help your child grow as tall as they can.
Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutrient deficiency among children. If your child likes leftovers use cold grilled chicken, low salt ham or minimally processed lunch meat, or 2 hard boiled eggs to provide a good source of iron. Beans such as chick peas are another easy fix for an iron boost. Pack mini packs of hummus with carrot sticks and a few pretzels for a healthy option. Elementary school children need at least 2 ounces of protein at lunch. Compare that to a high schooler trying to build muscle and there’s a big difference in nutritional needs.
Natural peanut butter is another good source of iron, but if peanut butter is not allowed consider sunflower seed butter, golden pea, or soy nut butter all made to be tolerated by individuals with peanut or tree nut allergies. Spread on whole grain crackers, banana, apple or a whole grain bread.
Many of the foods that make up packed lunches of children today didn’t even exist 30 years ago. These foods often are hidden sources of sugar that clearly most kids don’t need in the amounts they are currently eating. Start by cutting down on obvious sources of sugar at lunch such as cookies, cupcakes, and other desserts which shouldn’t be daily indulgences.
For sandwiches, limit chocolate flavored nut butters, jelly, and marshmallow since the rest of the lunch probably has another source of sugar in it.
Surprising sources of hidden sugar include:
1 pack of fruit snacks = 4.5 teaspoons
Sugar sweetened cereal bar = 3.5 teaspoons
Fruit filled cereal bar = 3.5 teaspoons
Some yogurt tubes = 2.5 teaspoons
1 small pack of chewy fruit candy = 4 teaspoons
Skip the candy treat (especially if they’re getting extra sugar later in the day) and opt for a nice note or joke for young children. Take a minute and draw half a picture on their napkin. Have kids add to the story with their own imagination. Out of time? Use a premade lunch note or silly napkin available online.
For more resources on healthy options, Kids Eat Right offers lots of resources including articles, infographics, videos and recipes to encourage nutritious eating among children and families. Kids Eat Right is an initiative of the Foundation of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. To learn more visit www.KidsEatRight.org
Julie Stefanski MEd, RDN, LDN, CDE is the editor of Food, Nutrition & Dietetics for OnCourse Learning and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. You can connect with her on social media @foodhelp123 on Twitter and Instagram.