When I was in grammar school I walked home for lunch, and my go-to repast was a cup of Lipton’s chicken noodle soup, a ham sandwich on white bread and a glass of milk. Times have changed since the 1960s: parents serve an entirely different lunch to their kids — especially when mom is a nutrition expert.
“When I pack their lunches, they have a protein, a grain, a vegetable and a fruit,” said Barbara Bowen, a mother of two and a registered dietician. “They might skip a grain, but never a vegetable.”
Even the humble PB&J — the holy grail of the lunch box — is elevated in the Bowen household.
“There’s no added sugar in the nut butter, and I go organic and non-GMO as much as I can,” she explained.
Encouraging kids to make healthy choices about the food they eat is every parent’s challenge. They frequently have an ally in the school cafeteria. Former First Lady Michelle Obama called for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to be reformed, and in the 2012-13 school year, more whole grains, fruits, veggies and low-fat dairy products were mandated, along with reductions in sodium and fat. The Buffalo Public Schools feed 29,000 kids in 66 buildings every day, and food service director Bridget O’Brien Wood embraces this change and the chance to train the next generation of healthy eaters.
“Most schools have salad bars, with three or four servings of fruit, plus things like veggie crunchers (raw broccoli, snow peas and carrots with hummus for dipping). Kids never saw hummus on the food service line before 2012. They’ve acquired a taste for legumes now because of it,” said O’Brien Wood.
There’s a little kitchen magic happening, too, to encourage kids to sample foods that may look different.
“It took us four years to get people used to brown rice,” said O’Brien Wood. A healthier option than white, brown rice might not be familiar, so O’Brien Wood mixes in some veggie-packed salsa and calls it Mexicali Rice, a colorful, flavorful, fun-sounding lunch hour adventure.
Not all Western New York schools are required to participate in this federal program, however, and some food-service vendors still opt for traditional chicken-ish nuggets and other processed (read: less expensive) dishes. They may be kid-pleasing, but they aren’t teachable “clean” food moments. This creates a parental conundrum. Bowen’s third grader attends an Orchard Park parochial school that isn’t under the NSLP umbrella. “Her friends buy their lunches, and she wants to buy now, too,” Bowen lamented.
Finding the time
Andrea Privitera, a certified holistic health coach and CEO/ Practitioner at Child & Family Holistic Practice, has an easy take on lunches for her three children. “I give them the protein and vegetables from dinner and pack their lunches while I’m cleaning up. It saves me a lot of time and aggravation.” This practice also sets up her children for success in carrying their good at-home dining habits into their school day.
“Whole food is paramount to their health and well-being. Not even just in terms of energy and sleep, but we are learning that clean food — meaning organic and whole food, non-GMO, and unprocessed — is found to heal autoimmune diseases, decrease depression and anxiety and beneficially impact ADHD and autism.”
Not every kid is as easy to feed or open to fresh ideas at mealtime. Emily Gorman, a registered dietician, is about to become the stepmom to 7-year-old Aiden.
“He knows what he likes,” she said, “and it’s hard to get him to try new foods. I try to find that balance between food that he likes and a better option.”
Some of Gorman’s swap-outs are making homemade mac and cheese with whole grain pasta instead of opening the familiar blue box, and offering a salad and veggies before serving pizza.
It also helps to involve kids in the process. Erin Burch, registered dietician and owner of Erin Burch Nutrition, coaches adults and pediatric clients on how to make better food choices. She’s also the mom of a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.
“We grocery shop as a family, at the store and the farmer’s market,” said Burch. Seeing new and different items in the markets, and even seeing what other kids are eating at school, inspires them to want to try new lunch box foods, too.
Creative approaches to healthier lunches
Getting kids to eat a more wholesome lunch takes some creative thinking. Our experts have some tips to make lunch a healthy and fun meal.
- Erin Burch recommends showing kids different fruits and veggies, and asking them if there’s something they’d like to try. That sense of “ownership” in the meal is a powerful motivator. Presentation counts, too. “Sometimes it’s as simple as the way you serve it,” Burch said. Cut up veggies in easy-to-manage shapes and sizes, and maybe serve them on a new or different plate.
- Yes, the occasional junk food is okay. Andrea Privitera has some junk food in her pantry. “I try to make it the best option I can, and teach my kids about balance,” Privitera said. “If they want chocolate or a sucker or chips, they know they have to have a protein or fruit or a vegetable along with it.”
- Invite your kids to help you make or pack their lunch. Emily Gorman recommends asking kids to identify the protein, fruit, or vegetable as you work together. Talk to your kids about nutrition, too, and how food helps their bodies.
- Make homemade treats with fresh ingredients: Wholesome desserts are preferable to a boxed mixed or canned frosting any day. Barbara Bowen uses whole wheat organic flour, butter and good quality ingredients when she bakes.
- Be a good lunch role model. You are the most powerful model your kids have for eating behaviors. If they see you eating a healthy lunch and enjoying it, chances are they will, too.
“Be persistent,” said Burch. “Don’t give up. It’s a matter of changing things up.”