As we wrap up summer and start gearing up for back to school, you have probably noticed all the back-to-school lunch ideas as you scroll down social media. These include colorful images of cute lunch boxes with bright foods in perfectly bite-sized proportions. They range from very practical and easy to put together to incredibly elaborate masterpieces.
The truth is, packing a healthy lunch for your kids doesn’t have to be a stressful endeavor. It does, however, require a little effort and some creativity. Too often I am shocked to see what many kids bring to school, including sugary drinks, chips, candy bars. Sometimes, I must admit, I see fruit and a half-eaten sandwich.
Let’s be honest, these foods simply don’t provide our kids with the nutrients they need to focus and learn. When putting together a school lunch, let’s look at the 7 most common “lunchbox mistakes” that many unsuspecting parents make.
7 Common Lunchbox Mistakes:
1. Pre-packaged foods: Unfortunately, food marketers do a very good job of convincing us that pre-packaged foods are actually nutritious. However, that is far from the truth. Most pre-packaged foods include additives or chemicals like preservatives, food dyes and artificial flavors, which are best not consumed by little bodies. Studies have shown that food dyes can have a negative effect on behavior in children. Choose whole foods when possible. Or, at least, foods free of chemicals, dyes and artificial ingredients.
2. Sugary granolas & yogurts: We’re all guilty of this one. It’s too bad most store-bought granolas and yogurts are full of added sugars. But because we know oats and yogurt are typically considered healthy foods, we go for it. However, with all the added sugar, that granola and yogurt isn’t so healthy anymore. Opt for homemade granola where you can control how much sweetener (if any) is added. Also, go for plain, whole-milk yogurt sweetened with fruit, little honey or maple syrup at home.
3. Overdoing grains and refined carbs: Many times using bread, crackers, cereals, pastas and chips can be time-saving. However overdoing grains and refined carbs leads to a spike in kids’ blood sugar levels, which is soon followed by a sugar crash. This leaves them feeling sleepy, lethargic and mentally sluggish. Try limiting the starchy grains (even whole grains), and opt for a sourdough or sprouted whole grains when possible. These contain more nutrients, including fiber.
4. Not including enough protein– Many times, with the best intentions, we are so eager to make sure our kids get enough treats— like yummy fruit— that we sometimes forget about protein altogether. Growing bodies need plenty of protein. Try adding a hard boiled egg, almonds or hummus, which can help ensure your kids get a good serving of protein.
5. Skimping out on the healthy fat– Being that fat is the macro-nutrient that best stabilizes blood sugar and makes us feel full longer, it is wise to always include healthy fats in our kid’s lunchbox. Healthy fats include oils like olive and coconut oil, avocado, almonds, walnuts, as well as egg yolks, butter and flax/chia seeds. This will give them plenty of energy throughout the day, and keep them focused in the classroom.
6. Sugary drinks instead of water- Unfortunately, we’ve grown up thinking everything we drink has to be sweet or flavored, and so we give our kids fruit juice, thinking it’s healthy. Not so! Fruit juice is basically concentrated sugar, which means it causes a spike in blood sugar and triggers the body to convert it to fat, leading to childhood obesity. A better way to keep our kids hydrated is to send in plain, filtered water. Sugary drinks also act as a diuretic and actually leads to increased water loss. It’s always a good idea to send our kids with their own water bottle, preferably stainless steel, to avoid the plastic.
7. Adding too much fruit: Don’t get me wrong, fruit is highly nutritious and is always a good idea to include in a lunch box, but not necessarily at the expense of other foods like veggies, protein or healthy fats. Because fruit is sweet, many kids are happy to see it to their lunch, but overdoing the fruit can keep them from developing a taste for vegetables, which are not all sweet. Make it a habit to include veggies along with the fruit. The veggies add extra fiber to help kids stay full longer.
My strategy for healthy lunch:
So, as a Holistic Nutritionist and Nutritional Therapist, what’s my strategy for putting together healthy lunches? I believe it’s important to get creative and always get the kids involved. I first choose my proteins for the week, and then pick a day (usually on the weekends) to prep for the upcoming week. Some of my favorite proteins include:
- homemade chicken tenders
- beef/bison meatloaf
- tuna/salmon patties
- hard boiled eggs
- nitrate-free deli meats
Next, I choose a veggie and a fruit, either a small salad or veggie sticks, along with berries or apple slices. Often times, I’ll make the fruit their dessert, but sometimes I’ll add a homemade granola square, a piece of dark chocolate or homemade gummies. Lastly, I include a handful of nuts and seeds or make my own trail-mix. This includes, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, and raisins or other dried fruit. This provides additional protein and healthy fats, which will keep them feeling full longer and more able to focus and concentrate in the classroom. And that, any teacher can appreciate!