Now that kids are likely getting about a third of their nutrition from school—whether from the vending machine or cafeteria—your child’s nutrition should be the most important item on your to-do list.
Consider this: Studies show that nutrition not only impacts behavior and focus, but a healthy diet full of nutrient rich foods may even impact your child’s IQ. Not only that, but a nutritious diet as early as infancy can help support heart health when your child is much older. (For more on the impact of childhood nutrition, read, “Start Young: Why Heart Health Matters Now.”)
Here are four tips for a heart-healthy school lunch:
1. Start with a nutritious, filling breakfast
No, breakfast isn’t technically part of your child’s school lunch. But great nutrition starts with the first meal of the day. One study found that “relative to its energy contribution, breakfast provides a higher percentage of micronutrients than other meals consumed during the day.” Basically, breakfast has the potential to be the healthiest meal of the day.
A healthy breakfast also kick-starts your child’s metabolism, keeps him from getting hungry during the first part of the school day—which will hopefully lead to healthier lunch choices and less unhealthy snacking—and provides a nutritional foundation for learning. The same study found that eating breakfast can even improve academic performance and psychosocial functioning. Breakfast can influence how your child socializes and the behaviors and thoughts he has throughout the day.
What are great options for breakfast? Homemade oatmeal, avocado on whole-grain toast, steamed eggs and whole fruit, or even a nutritious breakfast smoothie or shake. (Add a half or whole cup of oats to this for a healthy start to your child’s day.)
2. Swap in nutrition
Kids aren’t known for adventurous eating. Luckily, there are some easy substitutions you can make to add nutrition to your child’s packed lunch. Here are some ideas:
- Remake the sandwich: For PB&J, use 100 percent whole grain bread, whole fruit spread (without added sugar—check the label), and a nut butter like almond, walnut or cashew (there should only be one ingredient: the nut).
- Pack pasta: Whole wheat pasta with pesto and veggies makes for a nutritious dinner—and an easy leftover lunch. (You can easily tweak this recipe to include more veggies.)
- Choose sides: Instead of chips or crackers, pack strawberries, grapes or apple slices (not whole apples since kids are less likely to eat them). Carrots and hummus also make for a healthy, delicious and easy-to-pack side. (Hummus is also inexpensive and easy to make. Try this delicious .)
- Include a nutritious drink. I recommend that all children carry a water bottle throughout the school day to stay hydrated. But if your child doesn’t, pack a bottle of water or a small carton of milk.
- Don’t completely forgo treats. Kids can enjoy treats just like adults do, but don’t overdo it. If you want to send a cookie in your kid’s lunch once a week, that’s fine. But just send one.
3. Stay consistent
If your child is used to the processed, high-fat and high-sugar options at the lunch cafeteria, she may resist her new healthy packed lunch. Be patient. Try to involve her in picking healthy food at the grocery store and preparing her lunch the night before. As she stops eating the less-healthy food, her palate will adjust to this new menu. In the end, consistency will pay off.
In order to give your child the best chance at a successful future, give him great nutrition. It starts with you—and benefits your child for the rest of his life.
What tips can you add for packing a healthy school lunch?
“Are dietary patterns in childhood associated with IQ at 8 years of age?” A population-based cohort study. K. Northstone et al. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Feb 7. 2011. http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/pubs/learning.pdf
“Breakfast: A missed opportunity.” S Affenito. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 107(4): 565 – 569. 2007. http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/pubs/learning.pdf