With all the controversy nowadays questioning the nutritional quality of school lunches, maybe its time for parents to take the nutrition of their child into their own hands, and provide a packed lunch for their kids, rather than relying on pizza, french fries, and hamburgers served at many public schools across the country.
What we would like to see happen at WVU is to host a 1-2 hour crash course in packing healthy school lunches, for parents. This course would be held once a semester, and would give parents the opportunity to learn about the components of a healthy lunch, ideas on how to incorporate each of the food groups into the packed lunches, time-saving tips, food temperature and food safety information, and they would be able to put their new-found knowledge into practice by creating and sharing menu ideas.
Parents can bring their kids to this program as well, and each kid will be given a lunch bag (or insulated thermos, etc) to decorate with craft supplies like fabric paint.
When I think of the typical packed school lunch, I imagine a parent throwing together a PB & J sandwich on white bread, a bag of cheetos, a whole apple, a juice box or can of soda, and a package of oreos or something similar. The problem with this lunch, is that it is high in sugar (juice box, soda, oreos), high in fat (cheetos, oreos), and low in important nutrients (except for the peanut butter and the apple).
Here would be an easy switch to make: A peanut butter and strawberry sandwich on whole wheat bread, a hard boiled egg, red pepper slices with hummus or a low-fat/fat-free salad dressing, water or low-fat milk, & a container of chocolate pudding (around 120 calories or less).
How is this different from the first school lunch described? Well the 2nd school lunch uses whole wheat bread over white bread– the fiber will help keep your child feel full, and provides more nutrients than the refined white bread. Sticking sliced strawberries into the peanut butter sandwich rather than the jelly is a better idea because strawberries provide fiber, and strawberry jelly is really nothing more than sugar. The bag of cheetos is replaced with a hard boiled egg, which along with the peanut butter provides protein in the child’s meal. Parents could also use deli turkey, chicken, or roast beef in their sandwich as the protein source for the meal…but I was trying to stick with the peanut butter and jelly sandwich theme. Since the meal already includes fruit, I’ve included a fresh vegetable with a fun dipping sauce for the kid to enjoy. Soda has obviously been replaced with the water or low-fat milk. Milk provides the child with calcium, vitamin D, and protein, which is great, but if the child doesn’t drink milk (or if keeping the lunch cold is an issue), then water is also a healthy option. Finally, don’t be afraid of giving the child a treat to look forward to in their meal. Instead of opting for things like oreos, cookies, and brownies, however, try to choose a dessert that also has a nutritional benefit. Low-fat/low-sugar puddings, rice krispie treats, fruit leather, or trail mix (with chocolate chips and/or M&Ms!) are possible options.
This is just one of the many examples of a healthy school lunch that can be quickly thrown together in the morning. The main thing to ask yourself when packing a school lunch, for your kids or for yourself, is “Does this contain all of the food groups?” Make sure there is a whole grain source (whole wheat pita bread, whole wheat wrap), a protein source (lunch meat, egg, peanut butter, cheese), fruit (apple slices, grapes), vegetables (cauliflower, carrot sticks), and a dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt). You can combine several of these food groups into the main entree–making a salad with leftover grilled chicken on it, a sandwich, a wrap, or a cold pasta dish– and the rest of the food groups can be side dishes. Be creative!
If you’re looking for ideas, or your kids are bored with the usual lunch rotation– check out this website for cool pictures and descriptions of packed lunches. It’s important to note that not all of these lunches include all of the food groups, but they do provide some good ideas. Here are some of my favorites:
“Spinach salad with feta cheese, almonds, grape tomatoes. Strawberries, turkey and cheese rolled in a whole wheat flour tortilla.”
For those kids who want “Lunchables”– here’s a healthier cracker/cheese/meat alternative:
How delicious does that fruit salad look??
“Half of a Mediterranean Veggie sandwich – tomato, onion, cucumber, lettuce, peppers, feta and hummus. On the side are strawberries and yogurt with granola on top.”
Leftover pasta & veggies—what’s not to like?
Leftover chicken-pot pie to be reheated, along with carrot sticks & hummus:
“Tuna salad with crunchy celery tastes great on top of Triscuit crackers. Served with a salad and strawberries.”
….have I mentioned I have really been liking strawberries lately??
Again…I really am drawn to all these strawberries!