More than any other time of the year, the back to school months of August and September are a time of fresh starts and new beginnings for kids, complete with new clothes, school supplies and the treasured â€˜gotta have' lunchbox. But what's more important than the decal on the box is what you put inside to carry your child through the day.
Lunchtime in almost every school is more than just for eating; it is a combination of socializing, observation, finding your place in the order of things and finally, eating your food. What a child carries in his bag can impact where he fits into this order.
Parents of older school age children are very aware of the pressures awaiting children in the school cafeteria but we don't have to bow to poor eating choices to help our child fit in. It is the observant yet creative parent who wins the prize as coolest mom/dad in the end. So what's a parent to do?
Let's start with breakfast. Research has proven many times over that the child who eats a nourishing breakfast before school is a better learner because he is fueled for the day. (Would you drive to work on an empty gas tank?) While prepackaged breakfast bars can be beneficial in a pinch, the act of sitting down to a balanced breakfast will always be the best way to start any day--the very act decreases stress. Breakfast food does not have to be hot—cereal with fruit/juice is a fine way to start. Look for whole grain cereals with limited sugar, at least 45% iron fortification and real fruit juices, not fruit drinks; vitamin C in the fruit or juice helps the body to absorb iron from the cereal and increase oxygen to the brain. If your child prefers dry cereal, offer a cup of milk (2% or less, please!) to provide calcium and protein.
Now, back to school lunches. Let's begin with the understanding that many school lunch programs are under scrutiny these days as we look at trends in childhood obesity. This isn't to say that the food alone is the cause, but rather a combination of factors such as shortened lunch periods, decreased physical activity and a tendency to rely on convenience foods which kids love but also have a high percentage of fat calories. In our overworked society, it becomes easier to budget for purchased school lunches than come up with a variety of lunchbox meals that our kids will actually eat! Additionally, many schools contract with outside companies to make non-nutritious snack foods and soft drinks available to students, with a percentage of the profits being returned to the school. Fortunately, some schools now restrict these purchases during the school day, limiting the child's ability to opt for chips over vegetables.
Shorter lunch periods and long lunch lines limit what your kids have time to eat, so they often go right for the starch based, â€˜filler foods' and throw out the vegetables and fruit. These high fat/carbohydrate foods also make your child sleepy after lunch as the body uses energy for digestion, rapidly raising blood glucose levels and then allowing these levels to drop quickly, leaving kids unable to concentrate during afternoon classes.
Set limits but allow for flexibility. It's okay to allow the occasional purchased school lunch, so get the school menu and let your child pick the meal he/she wants to buy once or twice in a month.
Involve your child in the school lunch process. Start by asking what he/she would like to eat for lunch. Understand that peer pressure can change those preferences in an instant, so don't purchase large quantities of anything until a routine has been established. Your daughter may love egg salad sandwiches, but if the little girl across the table says they smell funny, you may never get a request for egg salad again.
Find out what time your child is scheduled to eat lunch. Some schools start serving as early as 10:30 AM in order to accommodate large student bodies or small cafeterias. If school starts at 9:00 AM, Little Bobby may not be hungry for lunch at 11:00. If the scheduled lunch is very early or late, ask the classroom teacher if a healthy snack might be allowed during long stretches of the day.
Let your imagination soar! There are so many products available that are lunchbox friendly yet still healthy, such as tuna in single serving packets, puddings which are low-fat and do not require refrigeration, juice boxes, etc. Try cheese slices (real cheese, not cheese food products) with whole wheat crackers, baby carrots with a fat-free dip, cut-up raw veges, frozen grapes so they are cold and crispy when thawed or trail mix made from cereal, dried fruits and a teaspoon of round, chocolate candies. Some children love cereal, so a packaged individual serving of cereal with a carton of milk and a small banana might be perfect. Consider wraps and pockets as an alternative to sandwich bread.
Ask your child to help put his lunch together—you can make sure the meal is balanced but he can choose the actual foods; children are more inclined to eat meals they have prepared themselves, If time is a problem in the morning, make a regular weekend project of setting up five labeled food bags (Monday through Friday) that can be filled with non-perishable foods in advance. Attach a sticky note to the outside with a list of last minute additions and you're set to go. The foods can be put into the lunch box and the bags recycled next week. If lunch is being purchased on one of the days, add the lunch money to the appropriate bag. (Note: check with your school regarding peanut butter or nuts before considering them as a lunch option. Schools with students having nut allergies may restrict peanut butter on the premises.)
Consider the size of your child. A full sandwich might be too large for a 6 year old; consider half a sandwich. Don't rule out flavored milk—many children who refuse white milk will drink chocolate or vanilla milks. Cut up fruit may look wonderful in the morning but might discolor by the time lunch arrives; save it for an after-school snack. Children love lunchbox surprises: one chocolate kiss, a favorite cookie wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a ribbon, a little note of encouragement. Slip them into the lunch once a week—rotate your days—and get ready for an after-school hug. Keeping treats small and simple allows your child to enjoy an occasional sweet without feeling deprived.
After school snacks should be included in your child's overall dietary plan and act as a bridge between school and dinner. Keep them light yet nutritionally dense. Small milkshakes, cheese cubes or fresh fruit will give them energy to last a few hours. Ask your child about the day's lunch and find out if you need to make any changes in the future. Then, send them outside to play for an hour.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.