I love fall, from the beautiful weather to the change in routines, with schedules a little more ordered and the kids back in school. But with back to school also comes the annual school lunch challenge. Parents and kids have a choice: buy lunch in school or pack a homemade lunch.
We are very fortunate here on the Island to have fresh local foods offered in our school cafeterias, thanks to the efforts of Island Grown Schools, talented school chefs and programs and grants designed to teach kids how to grow, prepare and love the wholesome. As part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, national school lunch guidelines have recently gotten a makeover, with public schools mandated to serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less saturated fat, trans-fat, sodium and added sugar.
But even with the improved offerings in our school cafeterias, many kids prefer home-packed lunches. And almost all parents need to pack lunches and snacks for their kids at some point.
Providing wholesome, balanced meals for kids is one of the most important things we can do to ensure our kids get the most out of school. Research has proven that students who eat a balanced breakfast have higher math and reading scores, better attention and behavior, and fewer nurse visits, tardiness and absences. National studies have shown that kids who eat breakfast perform better in sports, are more likely to eat well the rest of the day and report feeling better. But not all breakfasts have equal benefit. Sending kids to school on a belly full of sugary cereal (more than eight grams of sugar per serving), or white flour pancakes or waffles with syrup, can lead to hunger and fatigue as soon as one hour later. The kids who fare better are those who fill up on a breakfast with protein (i.e. eggs, lean meats, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt) combined with slow carbohydrate (i.e. oatmeal, whole grain toast, whole grain hot cereal, fruits) and a little healthy fat (canola oil when cooking eggs, avocado, nuts, seeds). The benefits of offering a nutritious breakfast can last all day long.
Back-to-school nutrition also means packing a two-food group snack for mid-morning and having easy to prepare snacks available for after school. I recommend viewing snacks as mini-meals and using them is an opportunity to offer an extra serving of fruits and vegetables. Try thinking of your child’s snack as a nutrition boost. Avoid offering empty calories like juices (even 100 per cent fruit juice, which should be limited to six ounces or less per day for younger children), chips, white-flour-based snack products such as pretzels and crackers, or high added sugar snacks such as GoGurts and many granola bars. Alternatively, pack a snack that has a combination of protein and fiber, such as whole grain crackers with cheese slices and baby carrots, or a quarter cup of nuts and an apple, or a quarter cup of pumpkin seeds and grapes. One of my new favorite snack recipes is to make your own nut/fruit balls using raw sunflower seeds or almonds and raisins or dates. Rinse one cup each of seeds or nuts and fruit with cold water. Put them in a food processor, along with a quarter teaspoon cinnamon and up to one tablespoon ground flaxseeds, chia seeds or unsweetened coconut flakes, and mix until a large ball forms. Roll into 12 to 16 small balls or form six to eight bars. You can refrigerate or freeze them. An after-school yogurt parfait (layers of plain yogurt, berries, and a low-sugar granola) is fun and nutritious. Choose packaged snacks wisely and sparingly; not only are they often low in nutrition, many are filled with artificial ingredients that have been linked to behavior and learning problems in kids.
After a balanced breakfast, an energy-boosting snack, and lots of learning in between, lunchtime arrives. I recommend offering kids a healthy, delicious and satisfying meal designed to last them for about three hours. This is no small feat! Here are a few quick tips to reduce lunch packing roadblocks and give you a few fresh ideas to put to use in your kitchen.
• Be prepared. Whether packing for preschoolers with tiny tummies or teenagers with active schedules, anything you can do ahead of time will save time later. Take some time on Sunday to cut up vegetables, wash grapes and apples, hard boil eggs, grill chicken, make a big batch of oatmeal, grind nuts or seeds, or prepare a soup or lasagna. It will put you ahead of the game on Monday.
• Think balanced. Aim for at least three food groups in each lunch. Protein, including dairy foods, a fiber-rich carbohydrate, including whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans or lentils, and fruits or vegetables are the components of a balanced lunch. Include fats when they fit with the meal, such as avocados, olive oil, cheese, nuts and seeds. We like to make a kid-friendly quinoa salad using quinoa (whole grain), edamame (protein), diced cucumbers and peppers (vegetables), cherry tomatoes and fresh mango (fruits) and avocado (fat). Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
• Limit extras that can distract kids from their main meal and lead them to miss out on nutrients. We’ve all over-packed, but try to monitor how much your child can eat for lunch and adjust accordingly. Here is what you can skip at lunch: empty calories (chips, pretzels), fruit drinks, juice, snack packs and daily desserts. If your child loves to snack but doesn’t like real meals, consider a bento-box style approach where you can use real food but present variety. For example, one hard-boiled egg, hummus with carrots and bell pepper to dip, whole grain crackers, small cubes of cheese and apple slices. Or try two slices of turkey rolled into a whole grain tortilla spread with Greek cream cheese and cut into pinwheels, cherry tomato skewers and spinach leaves with strawberry slices.
• Break out of ruts. Your child may just want the same thing every day, but explore new foods when you can. If you get stuck, make a list of all the whole grains, protein-rich foods, fruits, and vegetables that your child likes and will eat. Keep the list handy and pick one thing from each category to make some fresh lunch ideas. Try replacing regular hummus with black bean hummus or hard boiled eggs with edamame. A wrap can replace bread; farro can substitute for pasta; turkey chili can replace chicken noodle soup. Take advantage of the amazing local produce available right now to add color to your child’s lunch box: watermelon slices, peaches, cherry tomatoes, homemade kale chips, sliced bell peppers, sweet fall carrots, mixed lettuces, apples, pears and roasted pumpkin seeds.
• Get the kids involved. When they share in the planning — whether it is circling foods on a list, chopping and washing vegetables, or helping you with fun food combinations — they learn lifelong healthy habits. The best time to do this is the night before school or on the weekend, when everyone isn’t in a rush. Try to make it fun, which will relieve some of the stress you feel on school mornings. Fresh, nutritious lunches can sound daunting at first but with a little pre-planning, kid communication and creativity they can help the whole family feel great.
Prudence Athearn Levy is a registered and licensed dietitian living and working in Edgartown. She is the co-owner of Vineyard Nutrition (vineyardnutrition.com).