Friday, August 31, 2012

Save a bunch, and pack your and/or your child's lunch(es)!

It’s that time of year again… back to school! (I used to hate that commercial!). Anyway, back to school means back to routine, which for many, can be a very positive thing when it comes to diet quality. In addition to making sure your child eats breakfast, has healthy snacks, and a well-balanced dinner, make sure they have a healthy lunch! One of my biggest tips to both children and adults is to PACK YOUR LUNCH.

I recommend you make buying lunch a special treat for your child, just as eating out should be a treat for adults and NOT the norm. If your child is old enough, teach them how to prepare a healthy lunch, so that way you do have the excuse that YOU are too busy to make it. Packing lunch will create autonomy for your child, while also teaching them how to prepare food for themselves. Furthermore, if your child makes their own lunch, they will be way more inclined to eat it!!! I have been packing my lunch since I was seven years old (my mom will confirm) and I can tell you, I have packed my lunch and snacks almost everyday since! Another benefit of packing lunch is the amount of money you will save. If your child gets just the school lunch everyday, you are only spending $2.35-$4/day… but if they buy a-la-carte items, those prices can add up very quickly. Some of my adult clients estimate they spend up to $2,000/year on eating out for just lunch!

By law, school lunches (just the meal of the day- NOT a-la-carte items!) have to offer 1/3 of the daily recommendation for calories, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium, and <30% of calories from fat (<10% from saturated) on average for the week. However, a survey from 2004-05 showed that fewer than 30% of schools met the fat standard. A fruit and vegetable have to be offered each day, half of the grains must be whole, and only low-fat milk products are to be offered. On average, a school lunch in elementary school will provide 550-650 calories, and 450-600 calories for high-school.

While the school lunch is beneficial for students that don’t get much to eat outside of school, it may set up some students for weight gain if they are eating substantial amounts outside of their school lunch meal. Just look at your child’s school lunch menu, most of the items aren’t what I would consider “healthy” meals (e.g: nachos w/ beef, cheese & salsa, individual pizza, and a meatball sandwich, served with corn and canned fruit) since they are loaded with saturated fat and sodium. If you do allow your child to buy lunch, look at the menu and identify healthy options for them to select, ensure that they are eating the fruits, veggies, and dairy, or have them choose healthy a-la-carte items such as a sandwich on whole grain bread or a salad. 

The National School Lunch Program is incredibly valuable for underprivileged children and I am happy to see they are making significant improvements regarding the nutritional value of the meals. However, having your child pack his/her own lunch has incredible benefits and sets the stage for a good habit to last for life. If your child does pack lunch, just make sure you only have healthy options available, otherwise, their Lunchable, juice, and cookie meal will be comparable to eating pizza, canned fruit, and French fries. I recommend packing low-sodium lunch meat on whole grain bread, a low-fat yogurt, whole grain pretzels, and piece of fruit and/or veggies. You can also mix it up and have your child eat leftovers from dinner, create shish kabobs with veggies and chicken, use cookie cutters to cut out fun shaped tea sandwiches, or make wraps. The creativity of school lunch is endless!

Sources:  School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study III: Summary of Findings

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