It’s that time of year again… time for the kids to head back to school. And with the change in season comes a new routine kicked off with back to school shopping and packed lunches. Packing a lunch for our young scholars can be a daunting task at times, what with various school food rules, food allergies and aversions, and the pressure to keep the meal healthy and appealing. But driving us forward on this crusade to pack a superior lunch is the knowledge that a nutrient-packed meal is essential to a successful school year. While there are a variety of different components that contribute to the academic success of our students, the one element that is consistent across the board is proper nutrition.
A great meal isn’t just making sure that our bookworms get enough to eat, but also ensuring that they get an abundance of the best food to eat. This job isn’t all on the caregiver… some of the responsibility lies in the hands of the consumer, our children. The Division of Responsibility is a set of rules that, when established, will makes meal times exponentially easier. While this concept is another article in itself, it feels fitting to briefly introduce it here:
Adults are reasonable for providing a nutritionally balanced meal at regular and consistent times every day. The children are responsible for choosing what of that meal they would like to eat and how much. Once they walk away from that meal they must wait until the next scheduled time to eat.
What to Pack
MyPlate, the new and improved food guide pyramid, is a wonderful tool that is a bit underutilized. To put it to use in the context of a packed lunch, aim to make half the food that fills the lunchbox fruits and vegetables, a quarter protein rich foods, the other quarter whole grains, and for a bonus, add a serving of low fat dairy.
Fruits & Vegetables provide a plethora of vitamins and minerals with the added benefit of fiber, which helps to slow down the release of energy and provides an extended source of fuel longer into the day. When deciding what to pack, think fresh is best and whole is the goal! Try and provide fresh and whole fruits and vegetables first, and when that isn’t an option you can choose fruits canned in juice (not syrup), unsweetened apple sauce, or dried fruits. Most importantly, look for variety and work toward packing every color of the rainbow over the course of the week.
Protein is essential for building strong muscles, healthy skin and organs, and also helps to regulate blood sugar so our young learners are able to stay alert during the entirety of their school day. Choose proteins that are lean, such as poultry, low fat cheese, eggs and plant based sources such as nuts, seeds, or legumes. TIP: When preparing dinner the night before, think about cooking a little extra to use for lunch the following day!
Grains, or more importantly whole grains, are a powerhouse of both micronutrients and sustained energy. Recently, grains have been vilified as an unhealthy food option, but if we choose whole grains that aren’t in processed food products we will get a food with maximum health potential. The best way to identify a whole grain is to look at the ingredients list. On the nutrition label you want the first ingredient to be a whole grain. The only words that identify a grain as whole are; whole, rolled oats, sprouted, brown rice, or wheatberries. Be careful not to be fooled by the words; multigrain, wheat, or stoneground as these are NOT whole grains.
Dairy provides protein, carbohydrates, and fats (which are essential for the absorption of essential vitamins) all in one neat little package. When choosing a dairy product, look for low fat options and try and avoid products that have too much added sugar. Two favorite yogurt brands we love at MiniNutrition are Siggies & Dreaming Cow.
To put this all together, make a list of foods in each food group and mix and match throughout the week. Bento Box style lunches are great because they allow for easy preparation, provide a method to simply incorporate leftovers, and can provide the potential for your child to be a chef at school while they mix and match the ingredients you provided for them. Send them to school with a water bottle or low fat milk or milk alternative and they will be ready to tackle any school day!
This article was originally written for Nantucket Magazine on September 9, 2016