Packing Healthy School Lunches

It’s back to the school-lunch-packing grind, and many families may be wondering what’s new and healthy. Emily Rubin, RD, Clinical Dietitian in the Jefferson Department of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, interviewed some moms to see what they’re packing and offers some suggestions and tips:

In reviewing child obesity statistics, approximately 17 percent (or 12.7 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. As the parent of ten-year-old twin boys and a registered dietitian these statistics were scary, but providing a healthy lunch can be the first step in their decrease.

It’s important to have a healthy lunch to fuel the body and the brain during the school day.
According to National Health Service (NHS), a balanced lunchbox should contain four elements:
1. Starchy foods like bread, rice, potatoes or pasta
2. Protein foods like meat, fish, eggs or beans
3. A dairy item, like cheese or yogurt
4. Vegetables or salad and a portion of fruit

Here are my tips to achieve the holy grail of healthy lunches: those that kids will actually eat.

Kid Participation
Let the kids help choose the foods and you can offer healthy substitution if needed.

Kids helping make lunches

Emily’s twins love helping pack their healthy lunches.

It’s also important to remember that it’s not your lunch. If you pack cottage cheese and your child hates it, it will not be eaten. Have them pick one starch, protein, fruit/vegetable and dairy. If they are part of the action it may make them more motivated to eat their lunch. Kids get bored with the same food every day, so try to mix it up – teach them how to make sandwiches and pizzas for lunch. My twin boys help me pack their lunches at night – they enjoy picking out their favorite foods.

Breakfast for Lunch
Some kids may skip breakfast or have an early lunch, so breakfast food can be appealing for lunch. A small, wide- mouthed thermos is great for keeping lunch foods warm.
Nikki, mother of three says, “My girls like to eat yogurt and granola for lunch to switch it up from the ham and cheese sandwich.”

Some healthy breakfast options:

  • Raisin bagel with light cream cheese, peanut butter
  • Two hard-boiled eggs and a wheat English muffin with jelly
  • Whole grain Waffles with peanut butter
  • Yogurt with granola and fruit
  • Whole grain cereal and skim milk
  • Oatmeal
  • Cheese and veggie omelet

Dinner for Lunch
Sandwiches everyday can get boring for children. Taralyn, mother of two says, “I pack macaroni and cheese or shells in butter or meatballs in a thermos for lunch.”
These are great options. To make them more nutritious use wheat pasta, and olive oil instead of butter.

Here are some other dinner- like lunches:

  • Low fat cheese/chicken/bean Quesadillas
  • Leftover dinner stew: chicken and potatoes and vegetables
  • Grilled cheese
  • Soups
  • Pizza rolls
  • Rice or pasta salad
  • Pita pizza
  • Tuna melt

Snacks for Lunch
Some kids don’t like to eat a big lunch – or may prefer snack foods. These can be very healthy and balanced. Tricia, mother of two says, “My son likes to eat snack foods..such as cheese, rolled turkey , [crackers] , turkey pepperoni , grapes and yogurt.” This is a very healthy lunch and the foods meet the NHS guidelines.

Here are some other snack- type lunches (choose two or three of these to make a lunch):

  • 1 cup fruit /1 piece fruit
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Non-fat pudding
  • Almonds or peanuts
  • Trail mix
  • String cheese sticks
  • High fiber /high protein granola bars
  • Peanut-butter on apple or banana or whole grain crackers
  • Carrot sticks and whole grain crackers with low-fat dressing/ low -fat yogurt dip
  • Pita or pita chips and hummus
  • Whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese or spreadable cheese
  • Whole-grain crackers with peanut butter
  • Rolled turkey and low-fat cheese
  • Rolled ham and low-fat cheese

Money-saving tip: many of these items can be bought in bulk.

Bread-free Sandwich
Beth, mother of two says, “I use high protein/ high fiber wraps for my kids’ sandwiches.” This is a great option, and it changes it up so the kids are not bored with the “same old.”

Other breadless options to make a sandwich:

  • Pita – pack veggies and chicken salad
  • Crackers – add tuna salad or cheese
  • Cucumber – top with ham and cheese
  • Peppers – fill peppers up with chicken salad
  • Lettuce leaves – topped with grilled chicken
  • Apple wrap- wrap an apple with cheese slices

A Tale of Two Lunches
Diane, mother of one says, “My son would eat his packed lunch and then eat the free school lunch and he was gaining weight.” It’s important for parents to make sure kids are consuming an appropriate amount of food to prevent weight-gain.

If your child is buying lunch at school…
Current school lunch regulations require schools to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of an individual’s calories come from fat, and less than ten percent from saturated fat. Regulations also establish a standard for school meals to provide one-third of the Recommended Daily Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.

Beware of Food Allergies and Swapping Lunches
Many kids have food allergies or conditions that require special lunches. This can make it dangerous for kids to swap. Toni, the mother of a son with type-1 diabetes says, “There’s a lot of work that goes into packing lunches for our son. Not only do we have to consider a balance of complex carbs and protein to keep his blood sugar in check for the rest of the school day, if he doesn’t finish his lunch, his blood sugar can drop dangerously low. The other concern is if he accepts food from a classmate, it can be difficult to maintain his blood sugar when eating meals away from home.”

Amy, the mother of a son with Celiac disease says, “When my son eats gluten he gets very sick. It is important that he does not eat anyone’s lunch. His school offers a gluten-free menu.”
If parents and care-takers can educate children on the importance of eating their packed lunch, that can help prevent these dangerous situations. It is important to let the teachers and food service staff know, and a labeled lunch (gluten-free or diabetic) may be helpful.

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