School Lunch with a Nutritional Punch

Each year, the average American child eats half of their lunches in a school setting. What goes into those meals can vary by who prepares those meals – whether it’s you, the federal government, a contracted food service company, or a trained chef. Thanks to television programs like Jamie Oliver’s “School Food Revolution” and the federal government’s “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce childhood obesity, a lot more attention has been placed on what kids are eating for their midday meal. As a result, the upcoming renewal of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (which dictates how the 30 million children buying regular school lunch are fed) is likely to provide schools with a greatly needed increase in the amount they can spend on lunches.

Federal school lunch policies are complicated though, and it’s likely to be a while before you can count on a cafeteria menu with only healthy options. You do have an alternative – send Junior off with a packed lunch. A little bit of planning in advance and some creativity will go a long way in making this meal a healthy part of your child’s day. Here are some general rules to help maximize the nutritional punch of lunch:

Expand beyond the sandwich standby. Both you and your child will find more appeal in something new. Invest in a couple of reusable containers to help change things up. Ideas: salads, meal medley (three or four small containers with different finger foods), soup.

Choose whole grains. Identify them by looking at the ingredient statement – the first ingredient should be a whole grain such as “whole wheat flour,” “whole rye,” or “whole buckwheat.” Visit GoodGuide’s Sliced Bread category page for suggestions. Ideas: spelt bread, whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat pita.

Color it with vegetables. Based on data from the 2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average American child gets only 1 vegetable serving a day. Yes, one per DAY. It’s time to change that. Ideas: carrot sticks, celery sticks, salads, broccoli florets (lightly steamed), frozen peas.

Include protein in the meal. Balancing carbohydrates with protein will help children avoid the afternoon crash. Opt for lean meats and vegetarian protein sources like peanut butter and legumes. Ideas: whole cut cold cuts, hummus, black bean burritos.

Redefine dessert with fresh fruit or yogurt. It’s ok to slip in a cookie or brownie once in a while. Emphasis on the once in a while.

Get kids involved in choosing and preparing parts of their lunch. Research shows that this kind of active participation helps build healthy food habits. You’d be surprised at what kids will try if they have a sense of ownership over their meal. I recently helped a group of New York City 4th graders prepare pineapple jicama salad – it was quickly gobbled up.

Be environmentally conscious. All right, this tip isn’t related to the nutritional value of lunch, but it’s important to keep in mind as you go about any activity. Pack lunch in reusable containers and/or lunch boxes instead of brown bags. If you need to go with a disposable wrapper for a sandwich, opt for recycled aluminum foil or unbleached parchment paper instead of traditional foil or plastic wrap.

Share your ideas below!

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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One Response to School Lunch with a Nutritional Punch

  1. School lunch is very important, but I disagree with some of the recommendations above:

    WHOLE GRAINS: No! Our ancestors many thousands of years ago did not evolve to eat or digest any grains. Our bodies don’t handle grains very well.

    VEGETABLES: Yes! Vegetables are very good. Most are very healthful, with lots of fiber. Eat lots of salads with things like spinach, walnuts, pecans, and celery.

    FRUIT: It depends on the fruit. Many of our fruits today have been cultivated over thousands of years to be so sweet that they have almost as much sugar as a candy bar. Go for non-sweet fruits like avocados, red bell peppers, and tomatoes, and add them to salads.

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