With the beginning of another school year comes the inevitable question for every parent whose child has dietary restrictions, or whose kid’s school doesn’t have a cafeteria: what should I pack for lunch? In the first weeks of school this may not be much of an issue: you try the old standbys, only to eventually become bored with them. Maybe this year you want to make more of an effort to pack healthy (healthier) lunches. Maybe you are weaning your kids off packaged processed convenience foods that you know are not healthy for them.
Health effects of eating unhealthy food
Or maybe you have just become more aware that in childhood, regularly eating unhealthy foods has a number of well-documented health effects, from nutritional deficiencies to obesity to delays in cognitive development. Studies have demonstrated that children who don’t get enough nutritious food in infancy and their toddler years find it a lot harder to develop basic cognitive tasks and are less socially and emotionally developed than their peers who do get adequate nutrition. In the kindergarten years, children who consistently get less than adequate nutrition have a harder time learning and concentrating, and experience behavioral problems more frequently than their well-fed peers. The research is mixed on older kids, but some studies have linked poor diets that are rich in processed foods to disorders like ADHD, type 2 diabetes, and even autism.
Sometimes it’s tempting to pick up a pack of Kraft Lunchables or some fried chicken nuggets so you don’t have to deal with the hassle of cooking. You may often convince yourself you just don’t have the time to cook every meal. However, eating junk food on a regular basis – sugary, high-sodium, highly processed fare – makes growing bodies more prone to illness, since it compromises the body’s immune system (much of which is located in the gut), meaning you’ll be taking time off to nurse a sick child back to health.
But what if your child craves salty, sugary, over-processed foods, and claims that protests that healthy food is “disgusting” (my daughter’s latest favorite word for food she doesn’t want to eat)? Is there anything you can do to shift the way they look at food? What do you do when they’re at school and relatively free to indulge in less healthy fare?
If your child has the option to take his or her own lunch to school every day, you have an opportunity to program their little brains to crave healthy and nutritious fare over the sugary, high- sodium, fried foods that many school cafeterias continue to serve. Here are 6 things you can do to help stay the course of healthy eating during the school day:
Start the day with a solid breakfast
Make sure their breakfasts are always healthy and filling. Avoid highly processed breakfast foods. No pop-tarts or sugary cereals, including many granolas. Cheerios is a fairly healthy option with a good amount of fiber. However, you should check the sugar content: some varieties have much more sugar than original Cheerios’ 1 gram of sugar per cup serving. Choosing boiled or poached eggs over fried, homemade chicken strips or ground turkey meatballs over bacon or sausage (you can also make ground turkey sausage rolls yourself), breakfast smoothies over juice or “juice drinks,” or steel-cut oatmeal over the instant, packaged variety will enable you to send your kids on their way with a healthy, full stomach. You can also make breakfast bars the night before and heat in the morning, or toast with (reduced sugar) jelly and peanut butter (or sunflower seed butter for kids with nut allergies). French toast sticks made from rye or whole grain bread, or breakfast burritos are also good options that can be quickly made in the morning when you prep them the night before.
Plan ahead so you’re not tempted to reach for fast (read: highly processed, packaged) food. This is sooo important, I want to write it again in all caps: PLAN AHEAD. Designate one or two days of the week for prep work: if you have to cut an onion for dinner, cut a second one and store it in a sealed container in your fridge for up to 7 days. Cook twice as much rice as usual and store half of it in your freezer (maybe in a few different containers) so you can quickly defrost small portions. Do the same for chicken or (firm) fish that you cut into strips, season, bake in the oven in a greased pan (we use olive oil at home). Use frozen vegetables, which are nutritious and easy to unfreeze in a pinch (Costco’s Watts Brothers frozen mixed veggies are our standby). Form ground turkey, chicken, or beef into small meatballs, season, bake, and store for later use. Any of these ingredients can be thrown together in a pinch to make a nutritious meal that will leave kids feeling full and satisfied.
Pack multiple portions
If you have young kids, pack multiple small portions of healthy food for school lunches. Offer them a deconstructed salad: Some examples include a few cubes of cheese, some baby carrots, a handful of cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini cubes, cauliflower or broccoli heads (raw or cooked), lettuce leaves, and grapes. Alternatively, let them have pasta tossed in olive oil (cold or hot) or in pesto, which they can eat separately from homemade meatballs (skip the sauce), shrimp, or chicken cubes. Bento boxes work well for packing these kinds of finger foods.
Let them help prepare their food
Bring them into the process: It’s amazing what kids will eat when they feel like they have some buy-in. Let your kids make their own lunch, guiding them closely in their younger years towards healthy fare. If they’re under the age of 10, it’s highly likely that they’ll look forward to making their lunch along with you or doing it themselves as you supervise. As they get older, they’ll choose healthy for themselves, especially if you always make sure to have multiple healthy options at home for them to choose from.
Add a little temptation, in moderation
Indulging a little temptation doesn’t hurt, but you can always make it healthier. Can you afford to splurge on healthy dark chocolate? Add a few squares to their lunch a couple of times a week. Finally,
Reuse what's left
Use your leftovers. Dinner for lunch, anyone?
It’s not that hard to “reprogram” kids to prefer healthy food over junk. In 2014, research by scientists at Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital strongly suggested that it’s even possible to train the adult brain to reject unhealthy food and increase cravings for healthy foods. As a parent, you can do the same for your kids now by starting with a few small steps.
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