School Lunch: It really can be healthy and fun!

School CafeteriaAs you probably know by now, the school cafeteria scares the hell out of me. While all parents have a different idea of what healthy food is and what healthy food is not, the simple fact remains that when children are at school, they are influenced by their peers. For years, you have had the opportunity to hand select and monitor what your child eats for lunch. Now it is time to test their ability to make good choices. Healthy choices. It is only natural for your child’s eyes to wander and notice, and be envious of, what the other kids are eating. Here are a few tips that may help your child’s lunch be healthy, fun and get noticed by the other kids.

The lunchbox: It is important to have the right gear and the lunchbox is an important asset. Consider letting your child pick out his own lunchbox or purchase one and let him decorate it with paint or markers. Make sure your child’s name is on it with a permanent marker or paint. Most schools will not provide a refrigerator to store lunchboxes, so you should select an insulated one with a re-usable freezer pack to keep the lunch fresh. Or, instead of using a freezer pack, you can freeze a bottle of water, and add it to the lunch box.  It will keep the lunch cold and fresh during morning classes and by lunch time it will have thawed and be ready to drink.

More gear – containers: Those gimmicky, salt, fat and sugar-filled, “Lunchables” trays are very popular with kids. Not because they taste so good, but because look so cool. There is no reason a homemade lunch needs to look dull and unappetizing. Buy colorful containers in different shapes to pack your child’s lunch. They are better than plastic bags and less wasteful too. If your child is drawn to characters, buy some stickers and decorate the containers. Put your child’s name on the containers, but it is inevitable that some containers may not make their way home. Another option is to purchase inexpensive or “semi” disposable containers that will not disappoint you if they accidentally end up in the trash.

Offer plenty of choices: Provide small servings and many choices—variety is a key to healthy eating. Providing your child with plenty of variety is not hard or time consuming. Many lunch foods can be prepared, in advance, in large quantities. Each morning, simply fill up small containers with different foods. Quick lunchbox food suggestions include:

  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts
  • Fresh fruit pieces or a piece of whole fruit
  • Applesauce (no sugar added)
  • Celery sticks filled with peanut butter and raisins, or white bean dip
  • Sugar snap peas with hummus for dipping
  • White bean dip or hummus with carrots and mini pita breads
  • Yogurt
  • Peanut butter (or sunflower butter) and apple slices or crackers
  • Whole grain crackers or pretzels
  • Trail mix made from cereal, nuts and dried fruit
  • Whole grain wrap with hummus, spinach, and vegetables inside
  • Granola Bars (better yet, homemade granola bars, click here for the recipe)
  • Whole grain muffins
  • Pasta, Potato, Rice, or Quinoa Salad

Perhaps most importantly, talk to your child about lunchtime. Also, don’t assume that your child’s uneaten lunch is sign that he did not like the food. If you ask a few questions, you may find that your child does not have enough time to eat lunch or that he is spending more time socializing with his friends than actually chewing. Asking questions will give you the opportunity to help him learn other important skills such as managing his time and selecting times to socialize.

Remember that whole foods are always better than processed foods. Do not include anything with dyes or artificial ingredients. Did you know that one serving of spinach provides more than 50 different vitamins and minerals? Try replicating that in a vitamin. It’s easy to see why eating the whole (food) is better than isolating the sum of it’s parts. Eating healthy is not what it used to be. Now more than ever, it takes time to explain and educate people about key social, institutional, and practical obstacles to the widespread acceptance of exactly what healthy is. Marketing budgets surpass common sense, and the American public continues to spend more money on food at gas stations than at grocery stores. Below is a chart which illustrates the macronutrients, minerals, vitamins, fatty and amino acids and phytosterols [1] present in just one serving of spinach.

Our palates have been contaminated over the past 30 or so years in terms of the chemicals that have been added to foods. These pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics weren’t a part of our food system some 50 or 75 years ago. It’s a very straightforward solution to a complex set of problems when you really take the time to think about it; unfortunately the corruption and greed that exist in our society take over and the public discourse on health and nutrition suffer.

To learn more about why current national dietary guidelines in the United States simply do not represent our understanding of best practices for nutrition, and what you can do to significantly improve your health, vitality, and longevity, pick up a copy of my book (click here!).

[1] I googled phytosterols so you didn’t have to! Phytosterols, which encompass plant sterols and stanols, are steroid compounds similar to cholesterol which occur in plants and vary only in carbon side chains and/or presence or absence of a double bond. Stanols are saturated sterols, having no double bonds in the sterol ring structure. More than 200 sterols and related compounds have been identified. Free phytosterols extracted from oils are insoluble in water, relatively insoluble in oil, and soluble in alcohols. Phytosterol enriched foods and dietary supplements have been marketed for decades. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytosterol

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