BACK TO SCHOOL 2011: Tips for Healthy School Lunches

Monday, August 29, 2011


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With all the activity and brain power that goes on at school, kids need proper nutrition to keep them going throughout the day in order to excel in the classroom.

Must-haves for healthy kids

The art of mastering The Bagged Lunch for school-age kids is a task that parents have been trying to perfect for years. Mary Flynn, nutrition expert and research dietician at the Miriam Hospital, gives some advice on staples of a healthful lunch and the kind of food kids should be eating to get the through the day. She recommends whole grain bread, vegetables in the sandwich or on the side to snack on, less meat and more vegetables, and fruit for dessert. “If you do include dessert, use reasonable amounts (2 cookies, etc) and don’t include salty snack foods like chips," she says.

Add protein

Kids love those sugary snacks, but all it’s going to do is cause a burst of short-term energy that will eventually lead to a crash.  Protein-rich foods such as nuts, cheese, yogurt, and peanut butter, are great options for snack items to put in their lunch box because it will keep them full throughout the day. This is especially important for students who are involved in sports or afterschool activities. “Hungry students have trouble focusing in class, so provide your kids with enough food for several small snacks during the day,” says David Michel, Associate Director of College Counseling at The Wheeler School, “Mid-morning and mid-afternoon, especially before after-school sports are really important.”

Let them help pack their lunches

Children need to have food that will fuel them, but they also need to have food that they will eat.  That’s the tricky part. No amount of healthy-lunch-packing will even matter if your child does not eat it.  Mary Scott Hackman (Early Childhood Educator) and Janice O’Donnell (Executive Director) of the Providence Children’s Museum agree on this.
“Pack healthy lunches with your kids - but don't pack items, no matter how healthy, that they won't eat at home,” they say, “You want them to eat something!” This means keeping the majority of the lunch nutritional and wholesome, but also not going overboard with health-food.“Minimize the sugary or salty processed stuff, but otherwise let them make some choices. Remember that no matter what their palate is like when they are 8 or 13, by 21 they'll tap into healthy eating if that is what you model.” It also never helps to be a little creative with the healthy food you put in their lunch. Cutting up apple slices in cool shapes or adding a silly straw to drink their milk with is sure to get them eating the right things. That extra effort is worth it if it means making your kids strong and healthy.

Cafeteria food

If your children are buying lunch from the school cafeteria, it makes it a little harder to make sure they are getting the right nutrients. As Hackman and O’Donnell mentioned before, the best way to get them to make healthy choices on their own is to model healthy choices yourself. Michel suggests guidelines in choosing cafeteria meals that is helpful to younger kids, and also fun at the same time. “The best way to be sure you are getting a well-balanced meal is to ‘Eat Your Colors!’ If you do, you’ll have a lot more than starchy fried foods.” If you are concerned as a parent about the options in the school cafeteria, it’s a better idea to go through the school itself, rather than policing your kid. “This is an adult to adult issue,” explains Hackman and O’Donnell, “Join the PTO and advocate for hiring a healthy food caterer.  But you can't control your children's food choices as they go through the lunch line - don't try.”


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