It’s a fact—school lunches are getting healthier. New nutritional standards for school lunches are raising the bar and more Americans are seeing the difference. A national poll by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently found that:
- 86% of Americans support the nutritional standards required by the law.
- Two-thirds of Americans say the nutritional quality of food served in public school cafeterias is excellent or good, which is up from 26% when a similar poll was conducted in 2010, prior to new standards being adopted.
Hopefully, the days of serving unappetizing, poor quality food with too much fat, sugar and salt in school cafeterias are largely behind us. However, this is NOT to say that parents can’t do an even better job themselves by sending their kids to school with even healthier alternatives. But (of course) this raises a couple of practical questions. What should we actually pack in their lunch boxes? And how do we get them to eat it?
Is school lunch really worth the bother?
We think the short answer is yes. So do the vast majority of Americans. The same W.K. Kellogg Foundation survey mentioned earlier found that 93% of those surveyed believe that it is very important or somewhat important to serve nutritious foods in schools to support children’s health and capacity to learn. Numerous studies have shown that kids who eat nutritionally balanced lunches do better in class and miss fewer days of school because of illness. Balanced lunches that include foods from each of the major food groups help kids keep their energy levels up during the long school day and prevent sluggishness and afternoon “drop outs” due to low blood sugar.
Fortunately, there are dozens of websites on the Internet that serve up tasty and nutritional school lunch ideas for kids of various ages. All you need to do is to search in your favorite browser for “healthy school lunch ideas” and you’ll have hundreds of new choices at your fingertips. Here are a few general ideas just to get you started:
- Try to include at least three of the four major food groups—grains and breads, meats, milk and dairy, and fruits and vegetables—in each meal. A balance of carbohydrates, protein, fats and other nutrients will help your student perform at his or her best at school and provide a strong nutritional foundation.
- Consider alternatives to the same (to kids) boring old sandwiches. Try using bagels, pita bread, sourdough rolls, or prepare “roll ups” using flour or corn tortillas. Instead of processed meats and cheese slices, use cookie cutters to cut up healthier meats and cheeses that you prepare yourself at home. Offering a variety of interesting flavors, shapes and sizes is one key to getting your kids to actually eat what you pack for them.
- Encourage your kids to be part of the lunch-planning and lunch-preparation process. This provides a great hands-on opportunity for you to teach them more about nutrition. Plus, they’ll be more likely to eat and enjoy lunches that they helped to choose or prepare.
- If your kids are prone to snacking, include healthy snacks like dried fruits and nuts. Instead of pre-packaged crackers and cheese, consider making your own, using healthier whole-grain crackers and real cheeses.
- Consider creating a “dipping lunch” with ingredients that are all bite-sized and can be dipped in a sauce or two. You can package up the various ingredients in inexpensive plastic containers. For example, you can combine carrot and celery sticks with a ranch dressing dip or strips of chicken with a tasty honey-mustard sauce. Cottage cheese, yogurt, guacamole, or hummus can also be healthy dips.
- Soups and stews also make great sandwich alternatives. All it takes is a good thermos and a spoon.
These are just a few ideas for “spicing up” your children’s school lunches. Use them as a starting point for building your own menu. Work with your kids to find the things they like best, and chances are they’ll eat them AND enjoy them!