Back-to-school also means school lunches and whether you pack a lunch or your child buys lunch at school, making sure your kids are eating the right foods to help them through the school day is no easy feat.
Here's a sobering statistic: researchers at the University of Texas found that more than half of parents scored an F when packing a lunch and did not include foods that contained enough vitamins, calcium, iron, and zinc. According to the study, seventy-one percent of parents didn't include enough fruits and vegetables and 96 percent didn't supply enough fiber.
What's more, the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that healthy food choices are a huge competitive advantage for behavioral, athletic and academic success! Henry Rinehart, a restaurateur and board member of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, shares his simple guidelines and helpful tips for packing healthy snacks lunches AND down to earth advice on how to become an advocate for nutritious and delicious lunches served in your school.
In addition to Henry's involvement in the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food and a dedicated daddy to 6 year old Jules, he regularly hosts school groups at his bistro on Manhattan's Upper West -- the critically acclaimed (and family friendly) HENRY's - so students can learn more about healthy eating, food preparation and the restaurant business.
*** Henry's Tips for Packing School Lunches ***
Simple Beverage -- keep them hydrated and you keep them healthy
Often our kids are like adults and their lack of focus and energy are related to dehydration. Solve this and often you can arrive at a mealtime in much better shape.
Do Pack This - Water, coconut water, diluted fresh vegetable and fruit juices
Don't Pack This - anything that's not natural and contains unnecessary sugar or artificial sweeteners. E.g. Tang, Hi-C, Vitamin Water, chocolate milk.
Vegetables as the Main Attraction
Try to include veggies in or as the main attraction. They're not just a side dish anymore! Vegetables are often the greatest challenge for parents. Offer them early and often and you might be surprised at the response you get. Vegetables are packed with micronutrients and fiber -- two essentials for little bodies.
Most people over estimate the amount of protein that children need. Children over the age of 4 require .5 grams of protein per pound of body weight or less, that means your 50-pound child needs roughly 25 grams of protein per day. When you consider that a slice of wheat bread, hummus and an egg each contain about 7 grams of protein per serving. It's not that hard to get protein. What is hard to get is those phyto-nutrients from fruits and veggies that will help boost a child's immune system, provide major vitamins and minerals for better performance in school and help prevent major diseases down the road.
Do Pack This - Carrots with hummus, romaine wraps filled with guacamole and salsa, celery and bean dip, soup, fruit and yogurt with granola are several ideas that work as main dishes.
Don't Pack This - Any processed, sliced meats; white breads; sugary spreads.
A Whole New Side Show -- Beware Snacks
All too often, parents succumb to marketing hype and children show up at school with "snacks" that are loaded with fillers and sodium. The classic "goldfish" that so many toddlers nibble on sport a whopping 210 mg of sodium per one ounce (and most kids gobble more than that). Even more alarming is pretzels which sound off at 310 mg of sodium per serving. Accompanying the ubiquitous bread/meat/cheese sandwich, this combination of sandwich plus "snack" provides too much sodium, carbohydrates and saturated fat for growing bodies.
Do Pack This - dates, prunes, raisins, any unsweetened dried fruit, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are all natural, vitamin-mineral rich foods that will nourish and satiate the sweet/salt tooth.
Don't Pack This - pretty much any snack that comes in a packet. Like Michael Pollan says, we are trying to serve food, not packaging. Anything with preservatives, a lot of salt, fat or sugar.
Add Some Love -- Making Food Fun
Put a little love in the lunch bag! Make food fun. Don't just leave it to the food marketers. Write a note, clip out a funny magazine picture or print a family picture and draw mustaches on everyone! If you do this every once in awhile your child will be surprised to find a personal touch from home in the middle of a loud, crazy school day that will make her smile.
Engage Your Child
You're reading this, so clearly having a great school lunch for your child is high on your list of priorities. Make sure to discuss this with your child. Let them know that you are planning their meal and ask them what they want. In an ideal world, ask them if they want to help prepare their school lunch. You never know, you might just get lucky.
Engage Your Partner
Preparing lunch for school every day during the busy school year is a huge task by any standard. Try to make discussion of school food part of your planning conversation with your partner. Any and all efforts to support a healthy packed lunch for school are appreciated. And another voice telling your child about family priorities is key to success.
A parting word: That thoughtfully packed lunch may come back un-touched on certain days and it's important for parents not to take this too personally. When the children get hungry, they will eat. It's our job to have nutritious foods at every meal from which they can choose and to let go.
*** Improving School Lunches for the Whole School ***
When we turn our children over to a school, we have the right to demand that they are kept safe and returned in at least as good shape as when we dropped them off at school. This includes what you are feeding our children and what you are teaching our children about food. Make improving school food your priority for your time at the school.
All of the most effective changes in the quality of school food have been accomplished through the efforts of parents. This is not work that can be left to overworked and underfunded school administrations, teachers or school boards. Parental involvement is needed in every step of this process
Making change happen in your child's school will not happen by itself. This is an issue where parents are needed in a leadership role. School communities are stuck in some really unhealthy patterns and parents are needed to take positions ahead of the curve on this one. Being actively involved in all food related activities in your child's school will set the tone for change.
One of the great aspects of advocating for improved school food is that everyone is in agreement. The more you speak up about the need for change, the more allies you find. Students are the first and most important beneficiaries of great school food, but so are the teachers, the staff and the administration. Teachers at many schools spend over $100 and 10 hours every week preparing food to bring to school. Engage them in your efforts and gain friends and allies.
Make some clear and concise choices about exactly what you are seeking and stay on message. Once you have your message abundantly clear (practice on friends, spouses and your kids), advocate for your changes to everyone: school boards, principals, school food workers, teachers, etc.. Everyone stands to benefit from improved school food. There are now many organizations advocating change in the quality of school food, like the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food http://www.healthylunches.org. Join them and gain valuable teammates for your efforts.
The tipping point for a healthy school food program is having a garden-to-table program that feeds the school. Fresh vegetables grown by a school community change the funding game, give schools a connection to their food like nothing else and lead to endless curriculum opportunities.
Lasting change in the food culture of any community must have an educational component. Americans are exposed to up to 10,000 food-marketing images a day, the vast majority of which are not healthy. When a school commits to having nutrition, gardening and food preparation in their curriculum, the rate of change is extraordinary.
This is not a one-time effort. Set a pace you can sustain and stay on it. Often we overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in five years. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
I'm a former 7th grade Science teacher turned stay-at-home mom that lives in Houston, Texas. I am married to my college sweetheart and have a beautiful daughter named Riley, who definitely keeps me on my toes! I am also involved in starting a small business which would both manufacture and sell an invention that I've patented, called Toothpaste 2 Go. I love interacting with my readers and hope to learn as much about you as you learn about me!