Lunchtime is a bright spot in the school day. A registered dietitian and caterer collaborate on tips for sending children back to school with tasty and healthy lunches that feed their brains and won't weigh them down.
My registered dietitian husband and I, a caterer, have different opinions about school lunches, but there are a few things we agree on. We probably sent more than 15,000 lunches to school while our children were growing up. Here are our favorite tips:
Strive to create a balanced lunch
By including a bread, milk, a fruit or vegetable and protein source. Send personalized kid-size portions.
Use the best bread you can make or buy
Whole wheat works for most children, be sure the label says, "100 percent whole wheat flour." Sandwiches get a bit tiresome after a while, so trade off with bagels, muffins, crackers, bread sticks, tortillas, wraps and other types of bread. The brain burns carbohydrates so feed the brain with a healthy carb source that is absorbed slowly like whole grains and fresh fruit.
Find the right containers
Speaking of sandwiches, if they are squished, some kids won't eat them. You can find little sandwich-sized boxy containers to send them in. If you use perishable sandwich fillings like meat or mayonnaise, be sure to have something cold and an insulated bag to maintain food safety. For room temperature lunches, peanut butter stays safe. Pork and turkey products contain tryptophan which induces sleepiness, you and your child can decide if that is problem. Bagels and light cream cheese, muffins and nut butter, whole grain crackers and cheese, rolled tortilla pinwheels, beans, rice and salsa offer yummy alternatives to a sandwich.
Here's where we differ in opinion: I like to freeze 100 percent fruit juices in containers to keep the lunch cold. He says kids don't need the sugar from juice and should have whole fruit instead, which digests slowly and is more nutritious. He has me there. He suggests freezing bottles of water and wrapping them in a paper towel. You decide.
(that's caterer language for fruits and veggies). This is an important part of lunch — send ones that your kids will eat. Raw is better, but if you must, send prepared cups of fruit. Buy the type that are sweetened with fruit juice and avoid those little sugar-sweetened cups of fruit. Or, send a cup of grapes off the stems. The cup will keep them from becoming grape juice in the lunch bag. Vegetable sticks bare or with a little cup of dip or peanut butter are fun and healthy.
Your child might not want to stand in line to buy milk. At lunch, time is at a premium and getting to the playground fast is a goal. To get dairy in the diet, the dietitian likes frozen yogurt in tubes, string cheese or adding cheese to a sandwich. I just make sure they have milk for breakfast and dinner. For non-milk drinkers broccoli, calcium-fortified soy, salmon or calcium chews might be a solution.
This is often the thing that is eaten first, so make it good. It's usually more economical to bake and bag whole grain cookies and treats like granola bars (which to me seem like glorified candy bars with some healthy ingredients). If you go commercial, try to get treats with whole grains. When you bake you can substitute a third of the flour with whole wheat flour without a noticeable difference. You can also bake with only whole grain flour. Look for recipes with coarse texture like oatmeal cookies. You won't even notice the difference and you avoid preservatives and chemicals like dough conditioners. Try sending trail mix or nuts for dessert.
Chips and other tasty extra calorie dilemmas
I love chips and salty food. Lunch without chips, in my opinion, is a sad affair. They are high in fat and sodium. Popcorn or the baked chips varieties are acceptable. A good compromise may be to send them once in a while and not every day, or instead of a sweet dessert. Pretzels, dill pickles, olives and nuts provide a salty accent.
Include a note and let your child know you love him, are proud of him and give encouragement. Sometimes a small toy or love note will make her day. And, don't forget a napkin or finger wipes. Go to the school occasionally to support your child and check out the lunch environment. See what they eat and what's popular in the cafeteria.
So, send your child off to school with love, a good lunch and confidence in their ability to do good and make a difference in the world.