Editor’s Note: Normally, Kristin Kleinert and her husband Adam pen this column together. This time, Kristin took the helm.
My job at our local school includes daily cafeteria duty for kindergarten/first grade lunch. Believe me when I say that this ritual is a whole institution in itself: It’s messy and chaotic, and it’s NEVER boring.
Lately, however, I’ve been noticing more about what’s in student lunchboxes. Sure, that’s partly because I’m constantly being asked to peel back applesauce lids and poke straws into milk cartons, but it’s largely due to the rather fascinating selection of cuisine being toted into school each day.
I should mention that parents aren’t slacking when it comes to packing plenty of food in the lunchbox. These kids are bringing LOTS to eat, and the variety from table to table is diverse.
I’m always intrigued when I see new food items in clever little packages that were obviously manufactured just for lunch-bringers, as well as when I spot a kiddo whose parent/personal chef sent something yummy in a fancy, stackable container that is as aesthetically pleasing as the gourmet entrée packed inside. It’s fun and interesting to check it all out, and it’s part of my day – everyday – thus, it’s a subject that’s on my mind. And so,I’ve been thinking…
How can I be better at this? Am I really packing healthy lunches that fuel my kids’ brains and bodies?
I reached out to Southern Indiana based nutritionist Tarah Chieffi. In addition to a career in nutrition, Tarah has children of her own and is no stranger to young palates and picky eaters. She graciously discussed a few ideas I could implement when planning and packing lunches for my own tribe, and I wanted to share them here. We began by discussing the purpose of school lunch: to refuel and replenish, and, then, to sustain.
“We want to our kids to eat school lunches that power them and then keep them full for the duration of their day,” explained Tarah. “A big hindrance to that is all the added sugars kids often eat at lunch time. It causes them to crash not long after the meal is over.”
While we know snack cakes and sodas are all chocked full of sugar and sweeteners, we are less aware of the large amounts of sugar kids get from popular lunchtime items, like yogurts and juice boxes.
Tarah explained that while these foods are kid-pleasing and easy to toss into the bag, our kids are often using up the small amount of fuel they can actually gain from them. Then, they quickly come back down to quite a low afterward and are left to drag through their afternoons, sometimes even becoming really hungry as they anxiously await after-school snack time.
Tarah suggested looking for ways we can cut down on the sugar we’re sending in lunches. “For instance, it’s extremely hard to find flavored yogurt that doesn’t have a lot of extra sugar. Parents can try buying plain yogurt and sweetening it a little with honey. Or just tossing in some fresh berries or fruit.”
She added that when it comes to lunchtime drinks, water is usually the best way to go.
While many kids claim they don’t care to drink it, most will do so when it’s the only option available. (Trust me, every single one of those kiddos can’t WAIT for their turn at the water fountain when we’ve been out to recess.)
Lunchbox-sized waters are inexpensive and available at almost every supermarket. Even better, parents can send in small, reusable water bottles and eliminate waste. Also, you can find naturally-flavored waters (sometimes even with carbonation) for kids that insist on having something different.
“The first question they ask at any pediatric check-up or kids’ dentistry visit is always, ‘How much juice does your child drink?’ That, in itself, is an easy indication that fruit juices aren’t something kids should be drinking in excess,” Tarah said.
Next, we discussed other items that could be adjusted to make a school lunch box healthier. Pre-packaged, Lunchable-type items are widely popular and so cost-effective, they are hard for parents to pass up. But Tarah warns those little packages contain large numbers of fillers, preservatives, nitrates and hidden sugars.
“Deli meats can be a source of protein in a lunch, and protein is very important for a sustaining, energy boosting meal. But there are lots of better options out there. Parents can do a great deal toward packing healthy school lunches just by reading labels,” she said.
All-natural deli meats and cheeses are becoming widely available and are often much more appetizing. Stores are even carrying their own brands of these products, making them much less expensive than they’ve been previously. An additional source of protein is always peanut butter or almond butter, which can be eaten in sandwich form or as a dip for apples or celery. Again, it’s important to read the label to ensure you’re happy with the ingredients before you buy.
I asked Tarah to name a couple of items she’d recommend for a nutritious and delicious lunch-from-home. “Berries are always a great option. They have natural sugars that are sweet but they are sustaining and full of great vitamins and minerals.” She also said any fresh fruit or vegetable that your child likes and will eat is always a plus, and added that parents needn’t be concerned about variety when it comes to packing a lunchbox.
“If your child likes a particular fruit or veggie – say, blueberries – there’s nothing wrong with sending it almost everyday. It’s healthy and you know they’ll eat it, and that way you know they’re getting what they need when you’re not with them. My own son isn’t into cooked vegetables right now, but he loves carrot sticks and sliced cucumbers. He eats them all the time and that’s fine with me!”
As I wrapped up my chat with Tarah Chieffi, I asked if she had advice for busy families who want to be mindful about the nutrition they’re packing in school lunches. She suggested several ideas:
“First, parents shouldn’t be afraid to make up a few things ahead of time that they can keep on hand during the busy the week. If your child likes wraps, go ahead and make up a few with some deli meat and maybe a veggie or cucumber, stick a toothpick in them and refrigerate in a container. That way they’ll be ready to toss in the lunchbox during the week. Trail mix and homemade granola bars are also a great item that you can mix up quickly on a Sunday evening and then pack along for school each day.”
After talking with Tarah, I feel more motivated about the lunches I’ll be packing this school year. As a busy and often overextended parent, I’m sure that the meals I send won’t be completely natural, free of sugars and flawlessly nutritious. I do, however, know I can make a few changes from my normal routine to ensure that my brood is eating sustaining items at the school lunch table.
Don’t Stress About It!
We asked a handful of Southern Indiana kids what is their favorite healthy food item to bring in their lunchbox. Their responses were simple:
“My favorite two snacks are sliced apples and cherries. They’re easy to eat at lunch or even in between classes.” – Justin, Floyd Central High School
“I like granola bars because they have oatmeal that I love, and chocolate chips, too!” – Meredith, Silver Creek Elementary School
“Bananas. I eat them so I don’t cramp up at football practice.” – Deke, Charlestown High School
Don’t stress over packing interesting and unique foods all the time. It seems the classics are kid-pleasing favorites!
Here’s my plan:
School mornings are hectic around here (that’s an understatement), so I’ll have more time to be mindful when packing lunches if I do them the night before and stow them in the fridge.
I read labels at the supermarket, but more with an aim toward family dinners than lunchbox fare. Now, I’ll be putting extra effort into the lunchtime items when shopping so that I’m more prepared when packing.
I used to feel guilty when sending the same thing two days in a row. From this point, if I know it’s a healthy item the kids are currently enjoying, I’m going to stock up and send it often…even everyday if it’s working for us.
I’m going to prep a few things on weekends to add to lunches that can made ahead of time. Trail mix and energy bites should be great for this, and those are items my kids really enjoy.
Now, am I going to judge the Lunchable and snack cake packing crowd in the lunchroom? Absolutely NOT! Chances are my own kids are still going to be eating cafeteria food on days when I haven’t gotten to the grocery. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of times they’ll still have items inside their lunchboxes that are less than nutritious. But with some conscious effort, I plan to make the most of the time and items I’ve got on hand. My kids’ brains and bodies will benefit!
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