Packing a Healthy School Lunch
That’s right boys and girls, another school year is about to begin here in Northern New Jersey. You’ve received the school supplies list, shopped for the first day of school outfit and squeezed in that last bit of summer vacation at the shore. Or, for those of us raising athletes, you’ve begun the carpooling to practice merry-go-round. All systems seem a go for the start of the new year.
But, and we spend a lot of time thinking about this, what about the food? That daily “what to pack for lunch” grind starts too. How can you keep it fresh, nutritious, interesting and all in a brown paper bag or insulated lunch box?
Onsite cafeterias make lunch available but, school lunch requirements aren’t what they should be and, if your kid is like ours, they’re buying the chocolate cake and that’s it. Or maybe some tater tots. But education and sports and keeping a growing mind and body going for 9 to 10 hours requires more. How can we help our kids get what they need nutritionally and keep ourselves sane? There are some tips out there to help us begin to answer this age old question.
What a Brain Needs to Develop
Set your kids up for success by packing lunches that are going to support brain development. Nutrition is important during this critical developmental stage and it affects cognitive function and growth. Aim to get a variety of the following basics into your kids and they’ll thank you when they’re in their 30s:
Choline: This nutrient helps to support memory stem cells deep in the brain and impacts how the brain communicates with the body. It can be found in easy to pack foods like yogurt, lean beef, broccoli, cauliflower and tofu.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These healthy fats are important for brain and eye development and are a mood stabilizer. Again, yogurt is a good source along with nuts and seeds (see school policy on packing these or save them for an after school snack). Eggs, which also have choline, along with tuna, salmon, shrimp and scallops are excellent sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
Complex Carbohydrates: Carbs have been vilified recently but, for developing children, complex carbs provide fuel for the brain and differ from simple carbs that are essentially sugar. Complex carbohydrates release into the brain and body slowly, providing a steady boost of fuel. This is where whole grain breads and crackers come into use – along with brown rice – another good source.
Greens: Leafy greens, specifically. Greens have high levels of folate, a form of Vitamin B, and other vitamins that are important for memory and eye development. Kale, lettuce and spinach are tops in this category along with broccoli and beans. Folate is added to a number of other foods like breads and cereal.
Vitamin D: So hard to get and its importance has only started to surface. Vitamin D is necessary for brain and body development but also to alleviate depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is essential for bone health and the prevention of osteoporosis and rickets, and is vital in treating conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, asthma, bronchitis, skin conditions and a number of auto-immune diseases. Not found naturally in very many foods, it is added to milk and cereals. Sunlight is the best way to get Vitamin D, which then regulates other minerals in the body. Some foods that contain Vitamin D are eggs (particularly the yolk), mushrooms, dense fish like tuna, and sardines. Supplements may be necessary along with regular testing for appropriate levels.
Water: Simple, right? Kids need water to stay hydrated. Without it they become listless, forgetful and unfocused. Many children are unknowingly suffering from dehydration and that can lead to false hunger and poor food choices. That goes for us adults too.
Getting the Kids Onboard
The number one way to get your children on board with what’s for lunch is to get them involved. By taking them with you to the supermarket, having them help pack their lunch box, and letting them choose the fruits, vegetables and other snacks that acknowledge their likes and dislikes, you will foster variety in their diets while helping to boost their nutrition and add sophistication to their palates.
Have your child bring home what they don’t eat for a week so you can see what they like and don’t like. A surefire way to ultimately eliminate food waste, make sure they’re not going hungry, and monitor that they are getting the nutrition they need.
Make it easy and interesting. Use portion size containers, different shapes for fruits or sandwiches. Make food easy to handle and free of extra effort like peeling.
Sharing Nutritional Information
One of the best ways kids learn to eat well is by modelling their parents. Speak with your children about the benefits of the foods they’re eating. Table to Table has begun this conversation in the Ironbound section of Newark. Our very generous donors provide us with a wide array of fruits, vegetables and herbs, some of which our recipients may never have come in contact with. But when parents bring this produce home and incorporate it into their daily meals, kids learn what different foods can do for them and how routine it can become to incorporate a variety of healthy and appealing choices into their diet. Working with dieticians at the Mobile Market, recipes, meal ideas, and nutrition tips are all shared on a regular basis. With access to fresh food and a little education on its benefits and preparation, the future of food insecure families can be much smarter, brighter, and healthier. Happy School Year, everyone!