Lunches provided by the schools can vary in quality depending on the school, but sometimes public schools are catered by fast food chains. When my son was in elementary school, for example, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell provided some of the school lunch meals.
Although regulations state that certain standards must be met to fulfill a school lunch program, there are virtually no nutrition standards for foods sold in ?a carte lines, vending machines, and fundraisers. There is hope though — Congress now requires each local education agency that participates in USDA’s school meals programs to establish a local wellness policy by the beginning of School Year 2006-2007. See School Wellness for more information on this and what you can do as a parent to advocate for improved nutrition and physical education in your schools.
So what is a parent to do to encourage your kids to choose homemade lunches?
- One idea I used with my son is I allow him to buy lunch one day a week. The other days, he has a packed lunch.
- If your child is on allowance, make a deal. Buy lunch at school and pay for it yourself, or they can pocket that part of the allowance.
- Have your child plan what’s for lunch. Make 5 categories: main meal, fruits, vegetable, snack, dessert. Then have them write out their choices for each and post it. Download the lunch planner for your family.
Here are some suggestions for packing a healthy lunch to take to school.
- Organic peanut butter (without trans fats) sandwich wedges with jelly or honey. Add raisins, sliced bananas, strawberries, applesauce, grated carrots, or zucchini to the peanut butter.
- Try choosing 100% whole wheat for your bread products or use whole wheat crackers to spread peanut butter or goat cheese. See the Smart Shopping Tips.
- Any fresh fruits, frozen grapes. Cut apples, oranges, asian pears into slices so they are easy to eat.
- Make a yogurt parfait with plain or vanilla yogurt and cut up fresh fruit. Have them sprinkle with raisins or granola or trail mix as a topping. Pack in an insulated food jar thermos.
- Carrots, celery. Spread with peanut butter or cream cheese or pack the peanut butter or cream cheese or ranch dip (remember the cream cheese or ranch dip will have to be kept cool with an ice pack in the lunch box) in a separate container.
- Bake or buy a cooked chicken in the beginning of the week, shred and slice it to use for lunches the rest of the week. This is a lot healthier than using processed lunch meats with the nitrates.
- Rolled up tortillas filled with a thin layer of cream cheese and chicken or fish (like smoked salmon) or filled with rice, beans and cheese.
- Whole wheat pita breads filled with turkey, chicken, beans, grated vegetables, and rice.
- Hard-boiled eggs or egg salad sandwiches. Add grated vegetables to the egg salad.
- Pasta. Add chopped spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese and a favorite dressing for a cold pasta salad. Tortellini filled with spinach and a touch of olive oil or flaxseed oil. Cook a little extra pasta for dinner and use it for lunch the next day.
- Rice or Couscous. Make a cold rice or couscous salad by chopping up vegetables, pineapples, apples, chicken or fish. Again, use those dinner leftovers to supply the rice or couscous.
- Leftovers from dinner. This can be a great way to use up leftovers. Hopefully you have some nutritious combinations you can put together. Plan to make extra servings of healthy dinners to pack for lunches the next day. When you are making a salad for dinner, chop up extra veggies to put in the lunch the next day, like cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, jicama, tomatoes.
- Avoid using processed luncheon meats and the Lunchables, because of the nitrates in them. Health food stores often carry nitrate-free deli meats. Try the soy deli meats. If you start your kids out young on these, they will like them!
- Pretzels without trans fats, instead of potato chips. Look for Neuman’s brand of pretzels and snacks. My son loves rice crackers wrapped in seaweed or try pita, soy or rice chips that are baked and not fried. Look for Spelt pretzels in the health food store — this offers a nutritious grain and is a relative to wheat.
- Graham crackers, fat-free fig bars, oatmeal raisin cookies instead of chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, or brownies. Try a few chocolate or yogurt covered raisins for dessert. Chocolate does contain antioxidants and although not a health food, a little indulgence of chocolate with its antioxidants may not be the worst choice!
- Yogurt. Avoid aspartame and sugary sprinkles. The Gogurts have a lot of extra sugar, so I prefer the Stonyfield or Horizon squeezable yogurts which can be frozen. You can also make your own “Gogurt” by putting your own choice of yogurt into a plastic snack bag, freezing it and have your child rip off a corner and squeeze when they are ready to eat.
Pack a sticker, friendly picture, or note in their lunch to let them know you love them!
And finally, be earth-friendly and consider using a reusable lunch box and containers instead of all those plastic baggies. Laptop Lunches offers a great waste-free lunchbox and nutritious ideas for lunch.