The Importance of School Lunch

My family has a tradition of getting all our back-to-school shopping completed just before our big end of the summer vacation. Lunch boxes used to be big ticket back to school items but since my girls are tweens now, as Hilary Duff once sang, “that’s so yesterday”. Plus on most school days we’re lucky if their lunches make it from the frig to their backpacks!

If only the choice of what to have for lunch these days were as easy as whether to brown bag it or have a fancy lunch box. With the confusing food pyramid and ever changing food guidelines coupled with school days that barely allow for time to eat lunch, it is truly a challenge to get kids a proper lunch.

Let me give you a preview of what’s about to come: don’t view nutrition as one meal but view it as a group of meals that balance out together and function like a bank; lunch may very well be the new breakfast, meaning our kids most important energy meal.

Some Thoughts To Ponder

As my kids have gotten older, I’ve realized that helping my kids eat healthy is a balance between offering healthy foods, giving them control of some of their meals, and helping them learn to incorporate the less healthy foods with the healthy foods. Concerning lunch specifically:

  1. Given how much of their day is decided by others, especially at school, I give my kids total control over what they have for lunch among the foods we have at home.
  2. I’ve started to realize that lunch is not just a meal in a day but a meal that has to get my kids through the entire day including learning and after school activities. It is perhaps their most important energy meal when viewed this way.
  3. Fruits and veggies are crucial to their overall growth but don’t always get that energy jolt needed to learn.  So, I tend reserve fruits and veggies for dinner and after-school snacks and add more carbohydrates like pretzels and granola bars for lunch and in-school snacks.  The energy they provide lasts longer for my girls.
  4. It occurred to me that getting through a school day is like a mini marathon for my kids but involving both body and mind.  Just like with a marathon, hydration becomes as crucial as energy. So, I’ve put more emphasis on what they drink during the day and how much.
  5. When my kids have a sugary snack occurring at school, we don’t pack a snack that day or pack veggie sticks but leave lunch untouched. Lunch needs to happen as planned to learn well.

Kids and Food: The Big Picture

These concepts that have helped me, can work for your kids, too. In addition, you have to remember that kids have simple tastes hence why kids menus have the same 5 foods on them regardless of the restaurant! And, unlike us parents, kids can truly eat the same meal every day without getting bored. I swear my youngest daughter will one day become a ham or waffle!

As I mentioned earlier, considering lunch in the big picture of your child’s overall nutrition is really helpful.  The government’s new food pyramid (www.mypyramid.gov) gives a great visual description of what kids should eat during the day but it can be overwhelming. I know my kids don’t come anywhere close to what the pyramid suggests for a given day but their nutrition is fine if I take into account what they eat over the course of a few days.  So, if one day has more carbohydrates or fewer fruits, I help them make-up for it the next day. If one day has an extra treat built in, we skip dessert.

Your Kids Food Bank

Give and take, and balance. Those are the ultimate ingredients to success. Each meal has its own role in a child’s day. Breakfast jump starts our bodies after a long sleep. Dinner helps us refuel after the afternoon of physical and mental work and gives us fuel to keep our bodies going while we sleep. Lunch, on the other hand, has to catch us up from the morning and get us through the afternoon until dinner. A lot is being asked of our kids through the day, and lunch has to meet all those needs, including physical growth.  In many ways, breakfast and lunch need to be a bit more carbohydrate slanted and snacks and dinner more balanced with fruits and vegetables.

Lunch is tricky because of not only how brief it is in most schools but because of how important it is. Kids have to make up from energy lost from the morning and store energy for the afternoon, and eat it in about 10 minutes. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables and even prepackaged items such as the new 100 calorie packs are very useful for both purposes. The 100 calorie packs also visually teach portion control which is very useful for prepubertal and early pubertal kids who are primed to gain weight entering puberty. Using these items may not seem healthy to you but it’s what the kids like to eat and what they see their friends eating.

Sandwiches tend to be the best way to get grains and proteins done all at once and are easy to eat quickly. Kids tend to not like the taste of the real grainy breads so try the grain or wheat breads that look like white.   My kids can’t tell the difference.

Finally, for hydration with lunch, my choice is water. Kids don’t get enough during the school day and while I understand that school nutritionists view lunch as a way of getting calcium into our kids we can do that at home. What our kids need is water and more of it during school.

My kids hate buying lunch at school but I know many kids who love school lunches. The problem is school lunches are not always as balanced as they should be. On days your child buys lunch, plan dinners higher in proteins, fruits and vegetables and less in fats and carbohydrates to balance out the day better. Be sure you ask your kids specifically what they had for lunch if they buy to help you plan meals better.

Finally, no school year would be complete without the birthday treats and special events but that extra sugar load need not derail our child’s nutrition train. You can plan a healthier lunch the day of the treat or the next day to balance out the extra treat. Or, just skip dessert with dinner that night. I’m a believer that our kids can have a daily treat once a day but if it happens at school, then it doesn’t happen after school. This is how our kids learn to incorporate the sweets into a normal diet without adding pounds.

Making Deposits and Withdrawals

Clearly lunch will provide the most benefit if the remainder of your child’s meals are healthy.  Kids need breakfast  and skipping it is akin to trying to start a car without gas.  At the end of a day, kids need a healthy dinner, preferably with the entire family as studies demonstrate huge value to kids for the family meal and time together around the table. It fuels their souls! This may not be logistically possible if parents work late or kids need to eat earlier, but have a consistent time all of you are around the table. Perhaps breakfast works better for your family or dessert.

In addition to healthy eating, regular exercise has to be a priority. After sitting in school all day, kids need to burn off steam and have some unstructured time.  You don’t need a gym or organized sport. Just playing outside and regular walks together as a family can go a long way to staying fit. When I was a kid, my dad and I would go for a walk after dinner. Exercise and family time all wrapped into one – and calorie free!

What about weekends? Most weight experts and programs advocate a 5:2 plan for staying on track and this can work for families, too. You stay on track Monday through Friday with healthy eating and exercise but loosen the reins on weekends.  This is when most families eat out or order pizza. There is nothing wrong with indulging once in a while if the remainder of your week is healthy with food and exercise. If our kids learn this now, they’ll have it well ingrained by the time they are on their own.  But, even on weekends, lunch is still the pivot meal. You can’t skip it just because you are having a bit dinner that night. Eat lighter but still eat lunch.  It is that important.

Lunch: the new breakfast

So, breakfast, watch out, there’s a new meal in town, that may very well be more important than you are.

Here’s to a wonderful school year with new horizons and healthy choices…and perhaps even time for our kids to eat their lunch.

(Originally posted August 2007; Updated September 2011)