Parents and medical professionals alike have been concerned about the quality of school lunches for many years. When I work with children and adolescents who are trying to move into a healthy weight range, I typically recommend bringing lunch to school rather than relying on the selection provided in the cafeteria. My four children have always packed and brought lunches and snacks to school as healthier options and to avoid food sensitivities, such as gluten that affects my kids.
It took some time, but I have become quite an expert at providing healthy lunches that my children actually like. To get started, I suggest getting a good lunch box – one that will keep refrigerated foods cold as well as having a place for an ice pack. I also recommend investing in a thermos that will kept certain foods warm for 4-5 hours. When picking out a lunch box, pick one that has a hard plastic liner, or use tough plastic Tupperware so parts of the lunch can be separated and to avoid the unappetizing “mush” that occurs when a lunch is shoved under piles of books in a backpack. Strawberries are a great, favorite food preference of my children - but not after they’ve been squashed.
I believe it is important for my children to take ownership of their lunch with some parental supervision. Kids do best when they can choose (and make) their own lunch. The age this starts will depend upon the maturity of your child, but as long as you can supervise and approve the final results, this can occur as early as first or second grade.
When I first started this with my older daughter, I found that for her first lunch she had packed five different heathier snack foods but snack foods none-the-less. She had not packed any fruit, veggies or protein. It was then that I created my Lunch Box Rules.
Dr. Cederquist's Lunch Box Rules:
- Must have a protein. It can be turkey, ham, tuna, healthy hot dogs/meat balls, chicken, cheese, Greek yogurt, edamame, peanut, almond or cashew butter (if allowed by the school or camp). I usually look for three ounces of the meat which equals about 20-25 grams of protein. They may be less with the vegetarian options but then we will combine a few different proteins to get 15-25 grams of protein for lunch. It is essential that children receive adequate lean protein for growth and development. Unfortunately, it’s easy for kids to go all day eating mostly carbohydrates (cereal, pasta, chips, crackers) and not get the amino acids required from our diet. Often a sandwich will be made but also consider creating fun salads and lettuce wraps to switch up the way your serve your protein.
- Must have a fruit. This is the easy part – grapes, apples, clementines, watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, berries (again, in a squash-proof container), pears, peaches, plums or a banana. If no fresh fruits are in season, we opt for organic applesauce or mandarin oranges packed in water/light syrup.
- Must have a vegetable. This group is a little challenging at first. The go-to’s are baby carrots or organic celery with ranch dip. My son loves cucumbers. If we pack a salad with lettuce tomatoes, celery, cucumbers – the veggies are covered. Single-serve containers of guacamole, salsa or hummus are fun, healthy vegetable-based dips to also try.
- One or two for fun. After the first three “must haves” are packed, there is then room for one or two fun items like a
- Granola bar
- Homemade trail mix with dried fruits and nuts
- Pretzels/chips with one of the healthy dips
My kids’ favorite choices:
- Salads made with lettuce, cucumber, turkey or ham, shaved carrots, a few candied nuts, celery and a little cheese. We have a vegetable spiralizer and that makes cutting up and adding vegetables fun. Tip: put dressing in a separate container to keep the salad from becoming soggy.
- Leftovers of healthy meatballs and pasta are a treat in winter months served from the thermos.
- Soup and sandwich (always hits the spot on fall days)
- Greek yogurt with fruit, nuts and granola (We will pack that and then have a toasted sandwich for breakfast that morning)
There are so many fun foods available to fill your lunch box – don’t settle for PB&J every day. Just a last word about beverages – water is what we pack. We no longer buy any juice, eating the fruit helps keep then fuller. We will however pack Honest Kids low sugar drinks or almond milk as a treat at times.