That, my friends, is a recipe for failure. Your cut-out sandwiches will never look that cute. Your salads will never stay that crisp. Tidy bundles of matchstick carrots and pretzels? Please.
Lunches need to withstand a frantic dash in a backpack to beat the tardy bell.
But you can’t give up and pack baloney on white bread, grab a soft drink, a bag of chips and some snack cakes for the noontime meal.
Felica Stoler, registered dietitian nutritionist and author, has these school lunch tips to offer:
- Feed them breakfast. “Kids whose brains are well fed are more [ready] for learning,” Stoler said. Good options: Eggs and toast, fruit and yogurt, with granola or cereal on top. Even drinkable yogurt or squeeze tubes, she said, have carbs and protein, and can be had on the go.
Cereal is fine as long as it isn’t too sugary. Stoler would tell her kids they could have any cereal, as long as it had 3 grams of fiber per serving.
- When it comes to lunch, peanut butter can be fine as long as you make a smart choice. Avoid hydrogenated fats.
“I like Smart Balance peanut butter,” she said. “The other thing I like is Nutella.” Both are made with palm fruit oil, which are touted as heart-healthy and help to lower cholesterol, she said.
- Pick your battles. “I’m going to shock you because I’m not as concerned about high fructose corn syrup,” Stoler said. Gatorade and soda aren’t good choices because they have almost no nutritive value.
But in something like bread, as long as it has 4 or 5 grams of fiber per serving, the amount of high fructose corn syrup is “negligible,” she said.
- When it comes to snacks, portion control is key. “I love graham crackers, even Teddy Grahams,” Stoler said. “I’m big on ‘make your life easier.’ I recommend getting a big container. Measure out portions and put them in snack bags so they’re ready to go. Same with pretzels, which can be good snacks.”
- Never say never. Even chips? “I’m not saying you can’t let kids eat it, because then when they get a chance they will binge,” she said. Instead, teach them to pour out one portion into a bowl and don’t go back for seconds.
Anita Courtney, director of the Tweens Nutrition and Fitness Coalition in Lexington, Ky., and a registered dietitian, offers these suggestions:
- Get buy-in. “The first thing is to get your child involved in the selection process so you reduce the chance they will trade it or throw it out,” she said.
- Come up with your family’s template to fill in. “For my family it was: protein, whole grain, fruit and vegetable,” she said. “That gave us a framework to fill in. The protein might be a hard-boiled egg, tuna, peanut butter, turkey, hummus, cheese, yogurt, nuts.”
The whole grain might be bread, crackers, a tortilla, rice cakes; anything but white carbs, she said. “You want whole wheat or whole grain to be the first on the ingredients list.”
- For fruits and vegetables, look for seasonal. Cups of unsweetened applesauce are fine but why not go for fresh apples in season? Clementines, which are easy to peel, are a much better choice than oranges in syrup. Even little cups of a few berries will work because portions for kids are smaller.
- School cafeteria lunches aren’t that bad. They’ve certainly improved, Courtney said, with more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less salt and sugar. “And if we give children’s palates time to adjust, it will become the new normal for how kids eat,” she said.
- For tips on snacks … Courtney suggests popcorn, peanut butter on apples or string cheese.
- Go inside. “If your schedule allows, go and have lunch at school with your younger kids,” Courtney said. You’ll see what gets eaten, what gets thrown away and why.
- What should never be packed? “I don’t think there’s a never,” she said. “Be flexible. Pack what’s on hand. Leftovers in Tupperware, or leftover pizza. Work with what you have. … If you made a great cake, put a piece in.”
Jackie Walters, a Fayette County extension nutrition specialist and registered dietitian, works with families who are SNAP-eligible and typically qualify for free or reduced lunch. She suggests the following:
- School lunches are better, but only if your kids make smart choices. “We made some great strides with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which is due for re-authorization next month,” Walters said. “Take advantage of the fact the bar has been raised, that kids can get one or two servings of fruit or vegetables, low-fat dairy, as well as high-protein food items, a whole grain. Nutritious balanced meals are definitely available.”
But ask your kids what they actually ate. Schools today only have to offer things to kids, not actually fill a plate and hand it to them.
- Ask your school about farm-to-school programs, which are great sources of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, dairy and cheese from local farmers. USDA grants are often available; check with your local extension service agents.