You don’t want your kid to eat those unhealthy school lunches, so you pack a home lunch. Avoid these 3 mistakes you make when packing a healthy school lunch.
Last year, I decided to pack a healthy school lunch for my two daughters. As a health coach, you would think it would be easy, right?
Despite all of this, I would deal with hangry children on the way home from school. Children who either a) refused to eat what I packed for them –or– b) preferred to eat all their “treats” instead of the healthier options.
There were even times when I discovered a rotting piece of fruit at the bottom of their school bag at the end of the year.
What’s a busy mom to do? Well, I did what any time-starved mom of picky kids would do. I defaulted to the classic school lunch ideas, such as a sandwich, piece of fruit, potato chips and juice. Convenient, grab-and-go items that didn’t break my budget or end up in the trash at the end of the day.
If I was less persistent, I could have simply given them lunch money and called it a day. Yet, this fascinating article from the New York Times shares how kids hate how school lunches taste under the new regulations of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The truth is- I care how my kids eat when they’re not at home. Maybe that means I’m a control freak, maybe it means I’m all too familiar with the loopholes in school lunches that enabled my own childhood obesity, or maybe it just means I want my kids to embrace a wider variety of foods that they actually love to eat.
Plus, I want my kids to have a super hero kind of day at school. One where they feel strong, smart and fast.
Before we dive into the 3 mistakes most parents make when packing lunch, let’s talk about what a balanced meal actually looks like.
Many school lunches are based on the concepts behind MyPlate. MyPlate is the USDA’s guide to healthy eating, and is frequently taught in schools as well as informs the menu for most hot school lunches. Previously, MyPlate was known as a Food Pyramid.
You can see from this graphic the basics of what MyPlate encourages Americans to eat. Basically, it identifies 5 very colorful food groups to choose from in order to eat a healthy and balanced meal. Unfortunately, this is not a very helpful or accurate guide.
When I asked my audience to identify what they typically pack in their kid’s school lunch, this seems to be the same thought process- pull from each of these 5 food groups for a healthy, balanced meal.
First, they make sure their kid has a choice of fruit and vegetables. Then, they pepper in some sort of grain (unless they are gluten-free). And, last, they add in whatever protein their kid will actually eat.
For those super parents who have taught their children as young as 6 to pack their OWN school lunch, their kids simply grab and go from containers marked with each of these categories.
Notice: My Plate recommends a separate serving of dairy. While few parents I asked include milk in their kid’s cold lunch, it is a mandatory offering not just in school lunches, but also in every kid’s meal in restaurants.
While I am not vegan, there is no nutritional requirement for children to drink milk every day as part of a balanced meal. In fact, there are much healthier sources of calcium that are easier for our bodies to break down and absorb, such as spinach, kale and chia seeds.
What is actually wrong with MyPlate? Sure, it recommends eating more fruits and vegetables than grains, which most people recognize as a healthy thing to do. It also recommends a lean source of protein.
Yet, if we look at the macronutrient breakdown of each of these 5 food groups, they are not balanced. In case you never heard of macronutrients before, they are the basic building blocks of all foods, and include protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
Fruits, vegetables, and grains are all sources of carbohydrates. According to this plate, over 3/4 of each meal should be full of carbohydrates!
Sure, this might be appropriate for a very active and growing child, but perhaps not for an inactive child who tends to eat more grains than produce.
The other two categories in these food groups (milk and protein) are both protein. Protein is important for building muscles in a developing body. Yet, most kids probably need more protein than 1/4 of their plate (plus milk).
Finally, all of us need healthy sources of fat for healthy brains. As our kids spend most of their time in school learning new and unfamiliar concepts, they certainly can benefit from more brain food! Yet, this very important macronutrient is frequently missing from most recommendations.
Now we know why the MyPlate recommendations might not be particularly balanced, how does this change how you currently pack a school lunch?
Here is the typical home lunch:
- Fruit and/or Veggie
- Sweet or savory snacks
I am oversimplifying, of course. Yet, when you are running out of time in the morning, because you forgot to pack your kid’s lunch the night before, and they woke up late and barely ate breakfast, you will often default to what you usually do.
We’re going to walk through 3 common mistakes parents make when packing this typical lunch.
Did you know that the average American will eat up to 3,000 PB&J sandwiches in their lifetime? Even if you avoid peanut butter, due to allergies in your kid’s classroom, you might find yourself packing convenience foods like Lunchables or Uncrustables.
Unfortunately, Lunchables can have up to 67 ingredients in one box for a simple meat and cheese plate. Sounds rather crazy, doesn’t it? Uncrustables is not far behind, and includes many trans fats and corn syrup.
OK, so you do the right thing, and create your own PB&J sandwich on whole grain bread.
At least you know what ingredients are in there. Strictly speaking, when we look at the macronutrient breakdown of the classic PB&J sandwich, you have carbs (bread and jelly) and a bit of protein (peanut butter). While the fiber in the whole grain bread will slow down the digestion of this sando, it’s mostly carbs. Add a side of fruit and juice box, and your kid will be falling asleep by 2.
This doesn’t mean you can’t feed your kid PB&J, but it may not be your healthiest or most balanced go-to. Instead, you could use peanut butter as a dip for apple slices, or use real strawberries instead of jam.
How about meat and cheese with crackers? Most deli lunch meats contain high amounts of sodium and nitrates. Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a study in 2015 linking high consumption of processed meats to cancer.
When it comes to sandwiches, try whole grain flatbreads or homemade veggie wraps, and use shredded meats from your own slow cooker. Better yet, think beyond the sandwich, and go for meatballs or veggies with dips.
Most parents require that their children have at least one fruit or veggie in their home lunch. And, most parents shake their head when their kid brings back ONLY the fruit or veggie. You know, because they “ran out time” to eat.
Hey, I feel your pain. After all, I declared at the wise age of 18 that I would never eat another green veggie again!
You are doing your part by buying the healthy produce, and even chopping and prepping it into snack-size backs.How do you ACTUALLY get your kid to not just eat more produce, but really enjoy it? #backtoschool #veggies… Click To Tweet
The secret ingredient is to make the produce fun or unexpected!
- Instead of plain carrot sticks or celery, can you include a yogurt-based dip or nut butter
- Instead of beef or turkey meatballs, try these veggie meatballs. Extra credit for spearing them with colorful toothpicks for convenience.
- Instead of steamed, try making baked or sauteed “fritters” out of them, like these bacon and spaghetti squash ones.
- Instead of chips made from potatoes, try homemade zucchini chips, or baked parsnip or yucca fries.
- Instead of room temp grapes or bananas, try freezing them (slice the bananas first)
- Instead of sliced strawberries or berries, put them in this frozen yogurt bark
- Instead of whole fruit, make fruit kebabs
Be very slow and cautious with introducing these new ideas to your kids. After all, it can take up to 8 tries before a kid’s picky palate accepts these new adaptations. Better yet, have them make these items WITH you. They may even come up with their own ideas.
Whoever decided that our kids need to load up on calorie-laden, sugar-rich drinks should be drug out into the street and shot!
I’m not even joking. I can’t tell you how many women I work with who struggle with drinking enough water to hydrate properly throughout the day. Believe it or not, this unhealthy habit often starts in childhood, and especially as we replace our childhood juice or milk with more adult pleasures like wine or lattes.
Especially if you kid has been in any sort of team sports- you have to work REALLY hard to avoid juices, sports drinks, or (God forbid) energy drinks!
But, you are aware of the dangers of sugar, and make sure to pack only 100% and organic juice or skim milk. That’s healthy, right?
Juice is often full of artificial sweeteners, colors, and calories. None of which any child needs on a daily basis. In my own experience, my daughter will often drink her juice before she eats anything, which means she might crash right after lunch.
Skim milk may not be doing your child any favors, either. Whenever fat is removed from a food, sugar is often added. In this study published on Time, people who ate/drank full fat dairy had a 46% lower risk of developing diabetes.
Water is the best drink for your child. Use a fun, colorful bottle with a straw, a stainless steel bottle that keeps the water nicely chilled, or even infuse your child’s water with some fresh fruit.
Now that you know the benefits of using a macro-based plan to packing your kid’s lunch, and tons of strategies to avoid common mistakes, you can confidently pack a balanced and yummy lunch that your kids will actually enjoy!
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