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  • Aliza Beer

The Healthy Guide For School Lunches

French fries, tater tots, hot dogs, sweetened fruit cups, pizza, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and white bread are just some of the common foods found in a typical school’s hot lunch menu. While lacking in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fiber, school lunches are loaded with saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and are high in sodium. Since children are getting almost half of their daily calories at school, it is probably time to rethink this menu.

Unfortunately, school lunch programs are meant to appeal to the general “kid friendly” menu, which has come to mean foods void of much nutrition. Furthermore, these foods are cheaper and easier to obtain, thus making them the ideal cafeteria staple foods. Though most school lunch programs offer vegetables as part of the menu, on most days the selection of vegetables consists of a variation of potatoes. Even when cafeterias do have the option for a salad, often the selections seem bland and unappealing and are rarely the food of choice for students.

Since children will spend a majority of their day in school, eating at least one meal and a snack there, it is imperative that they build healthy nutritious habits. Being exposed to daily unhealthy food choices from a young age and throughout adolescence can be the springboard to poor health and nutrition in the adult years.

Bringing lunch to school instead of partaking in the hot lunch program is a great way to ensure a nutritious meal. For starters, homemade food is void of all the processed junk found in many of the prepared lunches at school. Also, packing lunch can provide way more variety than the options offered in a school cafeteria, which tend to be repeated a few times throughout the month. When packing lunch for school it is important to ensure that a proper balance of nutritious options are being provided. This means emphasizing protein over refined carbohydrates and vegetables and fruit over high sodium snacks. Some guidelines to packing a healthy lunch and guaranteeing proper energy for your children can be found below:

Protein: Some good examples of lean proteins include tuna, salmon, eggs, chicken or turkey, low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese, and beans. These can be served on a whole-grain sandwich, as part of a salad, or even on their own. Spicing up these proteins, such as by adding cinnamon to cottage cheese or chopped scallions to tuna can make these even more enjoyable!

Whole Grains: Sticking to 100% whole grains is the best option for children. Change up a typical sandwich on bread by trying whole grain English muffins, pita, wraps, or tortillas. Dipping tuna fish in whole grain crackers or spreading low fat cottage cheese on a whole grain rice cake are some good ways to change up a typical “sandwich meal”.

Vegetables: Children can find vegetables to be plain and boring so it is important to make sure this part of lunch is appealing. Sticking to brightly colored vegetables, such as fresh cucumbers, baby carrots, and red peppers are good selections. Packing a small amount of Hummus (a healthy fat!) is a good dip if the child will not eat the vegetables plain. Hot sauce or a little salsa will make veggies more appealing as well. Baking or sautéing broccoli, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts are also a good choice. Another option is sweet potato fries. By lightly seasoning and baking sweet potatoes a child will feel as though they are eating French fries but will not be taking in the saturated fats. Plus, sweet potatoes are a much healthier option than plain potatoes. “Zoodles” or zucchini noodles are another low calorie and super healthy way to sneak vegetables into children.

Fruit: Like vegetables, children can get sick of the same choice over and over. Alternating between berries, melons, bananas, apples and oranges will keep your child interested in consuming delicious and nutritious fruit! Canned fruit in its own juice or dehydrated fruit snacks are also good options, especially in the winter months when the fruit selection is slim.

Beverage: Sugary drinks such as sodas, apple juice, fruit-drink pouches, and PowerAde are best to avoid. Children quickly get addicted to sweet drinks and turn to these beverages for hydration as opposed to water. Taking in all this extra sugar and calories starts to add up and is a habit worth preventing. The best option is water, which can be varied by adding slices of lemon, lime, or any berry of choice. Naturally flavored seltzer is another good option.

Regarding healthy and satisfying school snacks, packaged chips and cookies are not the way to go. Snacks are an opportunity to provide proper energy but are often wasted on empty calories and sugar. When selecting snacks for children to bring to school, one should try to focus on fresh healthy foods, healthy fats, and protein. Some examples of this include low-fat cheese cubes, a handful of whole grain pretzels, low-fat yogurt with some berries, or a bag of healthier popcorn (such as Skinny Pop popcorn), which is a great source of fiber. Granola bars are also a good snack choice, but look to find a brand that is whole grain, low in sugar and fat, and high in fiber and protein. Some granola or protein bars are really candy bars in disguise. Look for no more than about 100 calories, at least 5 grams of fiber, and sugar should be far down on the ingredient list.

For the families that for whatever reason must eat hot lunch, encourage your children to make the best choices possible, and to eat a protein and whatever veggie is available to them.

Discourage them from taking second helpings of the carb-filled options such as spaghetti, white rice, and mac and cheese. Try to provide them with some supplemental food options just in case the lunch is unhealthy or unappealing. If they skip or have an inadequate lunch they will snack on unhealthy snacks from their friends and come starving to dinner, overeat at dinner, and go to bed without burning off those extra calories.

The food choices we make for our children and ourselves set us up for success. While school hot lunches may be enticing for children, they are also not the healthiest. Packing a nutritious lunch and some healthful snacks are the best way to get through a long school day. It is important to think about the food we want our children to be eating to ensure a successful, healthy, happy, and nutritious school year!

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