I can still picture the homemade school lunches that my mom would pack for me every day perfectly. Natural peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread, usually a fruit like grapes, oranges, or an apple, goldfish, and an organic cheese stick. My mom never kept us from eating foods that we loved, but she did have her limits. For example, there was maybe two times ever that she let us have a Lunchable. Fruity Pebbles were definitely off limits due to the crazy artificial colors, and you could forget about Heinz Ez Squirt colored ketchups that were on the market at the time. But seriously, why was that ever a thing? I knew early on that packaged and processed meals were typically full of crap. As a kid, there were definitely times where I was jealous when my friends got to eat their pizza Lunchable, Trix yogurt, Yoohoo chocolate milk, or especially hot lunch from the cafeteria. I craved junk food just like any normal kid, but I already had some of the basic knowledge that allowed me to make educated choices. I was also one of the pickiest eaters around, so when my mom was able to feed me nutritious foods that I liked, that was an extra bonus.
Now that school is about to be back in session, you're probably wondering as parents what you'll start giving your kids for lunch. Money? Pre-made packaged wraps or sandwiches? Homemade bagged lunch? I realize that everyone's circumstances and schedules are different, and at times it’s just easier to have your kid buy their own lunch. But let's be honest with ourselves... most cafeterias don't offer children extremely nutritious options. Milk tends to be conventional, meaning that it most likely has come from cows pumped with hormones and antibiotics, fruit medleys are covered in a syrup that is highly processed and unnatural, and side salads consist of about 5 small leaves of iceberg lettuce and some carrot shreds. Sweet. It's been a while since I've entered a grade school cafeteria, but I'd bet money that not a lot has changed. So, what do you do? You educate your children on what a properly balanced meal looks like. Some of your kids may already know this, and that's fantastic! They might know that fruits, veggies, and whole grains are extremely healthy, but do they know what processed and unnatural ingredients are lurking in their hot lunch? Probably not. This information is not meant to scare or restrict them, but to give them the power and opportunity to make educated decisions based on what they know. Knowledge is power!
What's Lurking in Cafeteria Food?
- Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's)
- Nitrates and nitrites
- High fructose corn syrup
- High levels of sodium
Conventional milk and meat come from cows that are fed GMO laden feed. How do GMO's affect us? Well, they can be serious endocrine disruptors which in turn can wreak havoc on hormones! MSG and nitrates/nitrites are associated with serious health problems like increased risk of certain cancers, excessive weight gain, adrenal malfunction, and more. High fructose corn syrup is hidden in your child's fruit cups, cereals, breads and bagels, and packaged snacks. Sodium levels in cafeteria foods like pizza, chicken nuggets, salad dressings, and deli meats are through the roof. Why are schools feeding your kids crap that is not going to fuel them and give them the energy they need to learn and grow? We wonder why kids fall asleep in classes, yet we don't take the time to look at their nutrition during the day. The answer is right in front of us. Give them food that will nourish them, not make them feel like they need to take a nap!
Kids learn about mathematical equations, proper grammar, and how to throw a dodgeball, but are they taught what's hiding in their food? Nope. When discussing with your kids the types of foods that might be better nutritionally, it's important to give them an idea of what higher quality options look like. For example, if they're used to eating Trix yogurt or Light & Fit, talk to them about yogurt options such as Siggi's, Fage, and Stonyfield that don't include artificial colors or chemicals. Discuss with them that the shorter the ingredient list, the better! While they don't necessarily need to know exactly what each and every ingredient means, educating them on how to read a basic nutrition label is essential to creating those healthy choices.
A few things to talk about on the nutrition label:
1. Ingredient list
Count the number of items in the ingredient list. Are there a lot? Only a handful? Are the majority of the items extremely hard to pronounce? The smaller the list with more simple words, the better. Look to see if there are added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar/juice, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, malt syrup, etc. Some of these words are tricky and try to disguise themselves as something other than sugar! The higher up on the list the ingredient is, the more weight it holds in the product. Search for things such as added food colorings like yellow #5 or red #4. These are completely artificial and can be more detrimental to your health than you realize! Giving your child the ability to read the ingredient list allows them to understand which foods are more processed and which are more wholesome.
2. Quality of fat
While I am absolutely not the one to discredit fat as a macronutrient, I am an advocate for choosing high quality and healthy fats over others. Instead of focusing on the amount of fat grams, per se, talk to your child about the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. Mono- and poly- unsaturated fats are going to be those heart healthy fats that keep your heart, skin, and bones as well as many other parts of the body feeling and working great! Some healthy fats to incorporate in your child's meals (especially at lunch) could be avocado or guacamole, hummus, natural nut butters, unroasted nuts like cashews, almonds, or pistachios, full-fat high-quality yogurt, organic cheese sticks, etc.
3. Vitamins and minerals
Talk to your child about micronutrients that may be listed on the foods they're eating. Do they see calcium? Vitamin C? Iron? Vitamin B12? While they may have seen these things before, they might not know how they can benefit them and why it's so important to get a variety of vitamins in their diet every day. Discuss real life benefits such as how vitamin A and beta-carotene in their carrots or sweet potatoes will aid in eye sight, skin health, and their immune system. Talk about how vitamin B12 gives the cells in their body the fuel they need to keep them energized throughout the day and to play sports! For foods like fruits and veggies that don't normally have any labels, still make sure to discuss the commonly known nutrients they hold like fiber, potassium, and protein.
When it comes to packing your child's lunch, it can be very dependent on how picky/open minded they are about certain foods. The main goal is to give them a balanced and complex meal that will give them a variety of nutrients, keep them full, and still remain tasty! Think of it as a rule of 3. Fiber (found in complex carbs), protein, and fat are the three keys to maintaining hunger levels and balancing blood sugar. This will keep them focused and energized, provide them with essential nutrients for proper growth, and keep them from craving sugary sweets or junk in between meals.
The Rule of 3
Fiber: A type of carbohydrate that cannot be completely broken down by digestive enzymes. It passes through the intestines completely intact and provides satiety, relieves constipation, and lowers blood sugar levels.
Fat: This is the slowest macronutrient to digest, therefore keeping you fuller, longer! Healthy fats to remember: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3, 6, & 9 essential fatty acids.
Protein: Essential for bone, muscle, enzyme, and neurotransmitter building and production. Promotes satiety and helps to slow the digestion of carbohydrates.
Try these lunch ideas and tweak them to fit your child's own preferences!
- Whole wheat tortilla (fiber), all-natural turkey slices (protein), spinach (sneaky veggie + vitamins), hummus (fiber + healthy fat)
- Add a fruit like banana, apple, oranges, or grapes (potassium, fiber, and vitamins)
- Goldfish (just freaking delicious)
- Whole grain bread (fiber), natural peanut/almond butter (fat + protein), banana slices (fiber + potassium) + raw honey
- 2% greek or plain yogurt (protein + probiotics + calcium) + berries
- Carrots, sliced peppers, or celery w/ hummus for dipping (vitamins, fat)
- Natural turkey or ham (protein) rollups w/ sliced apples (fiber) & cheese (fat + protein)
- Whole wheat pita chips (fiber)
- Veggies such as broccoli, carrots, peppers, celery (vitamins) + ranch
- Whole wheat pita pocket (fiber) with avocado slices (fat + fiber + vitamins) + shredded chicken or mashed chickpeas (protein) + tomato (vitamins)
- Mixed berries such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries (fiber + vitamins)
- Organic cheese stick (protein + calcium)
Notice how each option has complex carbs (which include fiber), protein and healthy fats! Feel free to add treats to these meals like real milk pudding, snack packs of M&M's or dark chocolate. The important thing to remember is that you want to teach your child balance and moderation. Treats are an awesome addition to an already amazingly healthy meal! For drinks, try to limit fruit juices as they typically are loaded with sugar and empty calories... instead, try adding organic regular milk, plant-based milk, or water. If they're already eating fruits and veggies, they don't need to gain their vitamin C from sugar-laden apple or orange juice!
Get your kids involved and make it interactive! Allow them to help pack their lunches each day if time permits. Giving them the opportunity to create their own meals will get them excited to eat their lunch the next day. Make that time a bonding experience and educate them as you build snacks and meals together. The more they know, the better the chance they'll make food choices based on not just their cravings but based on the knowledge that certain foods will give them energy and nutrients. Packing lunch doesn't have to be stressful! Remember to follow the rule of 3, make it fun, and keep your children in the loop when it comes to nutrition!
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