The start of a new school year represents a fresh start for school-aged children and parents alike. In addition to the opportunity to set expectations and responsibilities for the new academic year, it is also a chance to start to build new habits.
This includes eating habits. Indeed, the lunches you pack for your children can enhance healthy eating habits at home, or seriously undercut your efforts to provide the kind of balanced nutrition that supports good overall health.
Of course, there are obstacles to starting a healthy lunch-packing system and keeping it dialed in all year. Mornings can be so hectic and just tossing some pre-packaged “food” (bars, crackers, bags of chips or cookies, juice boxes, etc) into a bag with a PB&J is quick, easy and kids love it.
It also is loaded with sugar and has virtually no nutritional value.
There are dozens of healthier options, but doing a little planning and creating a simple system will make it easier to stay on track and avoid sending your child off to school with a brown bag loaded with sugar. And while mixing things up so your child doesn’t fatigue of the same lunch day after day is important, South Carolina-based registered dietician Kerri Stewart says there are a couple of hard and fast rules that should be the foundation of your child’s lunch.
- Embrace the 50% Rule: “One thing I always encourage – a good general rule of thumb is half of the meal is fruits and vegetables, at least,” Stewart said.
- Ditch These Two: A small sugary dessert or treat is OK sometimes. But there really is no good reason to feed your child white bread or soda. And it’s best to just “rip the Band-Aid off” when it comes to those two items, Stewart said — get them out of your house, and don’t look back. And be sure to read labels — many breads branded as “wheat” are actually just unhealthy white bread in disguise. Look for 100 percent whole wheat.
Starting with those two rules, you can build out quick, healthy lunches that your child will love. A few other tips will help:
- Provide more, smaller options. To hit 50% fruits and veggies, try smaller amounts of several types. A single large serving of one kind of vegetable or a salad can look overwhelming. But packing a few grapes, a small handful of baby carrots, and a few apple slices, for example, feels more manageable. And kids love options. That’s why Stewart is a big fan of using bento box style containers for children’s lunches. They’re perfect for providing several different options in their own compartments.
- Make Sunday a muffin pan day. Trying to figure out a healthy lunch each morning isn’t a great strategy. Set aside time on Sunday to plan and prepare some things that can be eaten all week. And Stewart suggests making your muffin pan a big part of your Sunday meal prep. “For kids, I love making all sorts of things in a muffin pan. Cauliflower crust pizzas, hashbrowns with some protein or vegetables in it, small egg omelets. The portion size is perfect for a kid. And it’s a fun way to give them something healthy that feels like a treat.”
- Stick with it. If you’re trying to shift to healthier eating, you’re going to get some pushback. Stewart says a lot of parents back down when the lunchbox comes home filled with food. But hang in there, Stewart said. “There are tons of studies where, for for a medical reason, a child had to go on a certain diet and they weren’t happy about and they didn’t eat or eat very much. That can be really scary to a parent — but biologically, they will not let themselves starve. I know no one wants to hear their child complaining and see them not eating. As a parent, you just have to be patient. It takes children anywhere from 10 to 15 tries before they decide if they like a food.
“But if you continue to let them have sugary, fatty, addictive foods they are going to continue to choose them.”