Healthy lunches for kids

Now that summer is over and the return to a more structured routine, the following blog may help you plan your childrens’ lunch time meals so that they receive the nutrition that they need for growing minds and bodies. Gwen was for many years the nutritionist at my old location of Healing on the Danforth.

Reblogged by kind permission by Gwen Calleya-Cortis, MA, RHN (Registered Holistic Nutritionist)

It’s 7:30 am. As you scramble to make a nutritious breakfast for the kids, you are already thinking about lunch. You may notice that your family rarely takes the time to eat a balanced breakfast on weekdays. This meal is often sacrificed due to time constraints. All the more reason to think about lunch! Will you take the time to pack a healthy lunch or opt for yet another fast food lunch?

Research has shown that children who do not eat breakfast perform poorly in academic and athletic endeavours. Hence the existence of organizations such as Breakfast for Learning! If breakfast is compromised, how can kids function during the afternoon without a nutritious lunch? Teachers can set a good example at school – if they eat a healthy lunch, this reinforces what they are teaching as part of the curriculum.

Lunch is just as important as other meals but is often eaten on the run or replaced by a handful of prepackaged snacks. Considering that the time between lunch and dinner can be as long as 6 or 7 hours, lunch is crucial to get kids through the school day. In fact most kids also need a snack halfway through the afternoon. This gives them more energy to do after-school sports or other activities.

Sugary snacks offered throughout the day do not replace a proper meal. Ask any elementary school teacher how kids react to a candy bar recess. Hyperactive kids who are unable to concentrate soon experience a huge crash in blood sugar levels and loss of energy. Schools often teach core subjects such as math and language arts in the morning because they know that the afternoon will be less productive. An inadequate breakfast followed by a junk food lunch means an unhappy day. When kids arrive home after school they are usually very hungry and want to eat cookies, crackers or whatever is convenient. They are then so full that they cannot eat dinner. And the cycle continues...

Not all quick lunches are necessarily unhealthy. A minestrone soup and a salmon sandwich on whole grain bread can be obtained at many cafeterias. But if your kids don’t have a school cafeteria or don’t go home for lunch, you may have to choose between pizza slices or a lunch box. At my house packed lunches are not very popular and often come home untouched or are traded for white bagels. Pasta or soup in a thermos are usually eaten, however.

Cold, packed lunches can be boring and repetitive, often lacking in flavour and texture after sitting in a plastic box all morning. Buy the best quality plastic containers you can find and try wax paper wrapping, rather than plastic wrap. For safety, always remember to keep food adequately cold by throwing a frozen block into the lunch bag.

If you can make lunch in the morning it will look and taste more appealing than if it is made the previous night. You can organize lunch bags ahead of time, however, by selecting drinks and other non-perishables.

Thermoses are very useful – fill them up with leftovers, soups, or pasta heated up in the morning. Check out the natural food section of your grocery store for a variety of frozen burritos, veggie nuggets, and other goodies. Remind kids to bring their lunch bags and thermoses home the same day so that they can be washed immediately. Don’t forget to add a container of fresh vegetables to a main course containing protein.

When making sandwiches, always use whole grain breads/ buns/ wraps/ pitas and pile on the veggies. Resist the temptation to use processed meats (except the natural, oven-roasted ones), and high-fat, processed cheese in sandwiches. Never send hot-dogs for lunch. All of the above have negative health consequences. Keep condi- ments such as mayo to a minimum because they add unnecessary fats, sodium, sugar and calories.

Never use white bread because it contains fewer nutrients than whole grain breads and can lead to weight gain more easily. Read labels carefully because many commercial products, including bread, contain additives which have been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Try to purchase whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.

Sandwiches, pasta, and soups seem to be staples for kids’ lunches, but there are many other healthy options: 

Cold lunches:

Raw vegetables and fruit, salads with eggs, turkey, chicken, salmon, tuna or cheese; legume salads such as lentil, black bean, navy bean; pasta salads with veggies, humus and pita, couscous or brown rice salads, tabouli, homemade pizza or mini pizza on English muffins (cold or heated), whole wheat bagel with cream cheese and cucumber, boiled eggs, low-fat cheese with raw veggies, cottage cheese with raw veggies.

Thermos lunches:

Vegetarian or regular chili, veggie burgers or nuggets, home-made soup, pasta with beans, mini pizzas, lentil stew, vegetable purees, rice noodles, leftover casseroles, frozen entrees such as burritos, vegetable stir-fries, baked home-made beans, natural roast beef or turkey with brown rice, tofu with ginger or teriyaki sauce, baked samosas. home-made cabbage rolls, home-made chicken fingers.

Snack ideas:

Fresh fruit or veggies, low-fat yogurt, soy puddings, home-made low-fat, low-sugar muffins, cookies, or banana bread, dried fruit such as raisins and apricots, brown rice cakes, low-fat cheese, plain air-popped popcorn

At home:

Raw nuts, nut butters such as almond butter, natural unsweetened peanut butter, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, frozen homemade fruit pops, baked fruit, trail mix, fruit kabobs, raw vegetable face, veggie dogs, soy smoothies with frozen ber- ries and bananas (Try this after school.)

If you have a microwave at your school, you can add some variety to lunch planning. Make sure that the lunchroom at school is adequately supervised and that you use microwave-safe containers only. Most soft plastic containers should never be used in the microwave as they can leech harmful estrogens into food.

Keep juice to a minimum. Use only 100% juice boxes and if you have drink containers, add 1⁄2 water to the juice to cut down on fructose. Remember, there is nothing wrong with giving kids water bottles kids for lunch – pure water is nature’s ideal drink.

Try to pack snacks separately from lunch, especially if they are sweets such as fruit or homemade cookies. Sweets and protein do not mix well because they can cause digestive distress when eaten together. Try adding natural yogurt, plain sunflower seeds or homemade muffins with limited sugar to the lunch box rather than processed cookies.

Never send candy or prepackaged sweets to school, except for special events. If you avoid buying these products, they will not end up in lunch bags. Processed food normally contains too much sugar, salt, trans-fats and additives, all detrimental to your child’s health. Give them what their bodies need and everyone will benefit. They will be happier and healthier both in the short term and in the future.

Childhood nutrition has a huge impact on one’s health later in life – good nutrition strengthens the immune system in the long run.

Despite our attempts to offer kids a balanced diet, it is advisable to give them a good quality multivitamin daily, especially during the winter. Your local health food store will have a variety of kids’ chewable vitamins, some in gummy bear format. Why not throw one into the lunch bag each day? Kids may think it is candy!

Gwen operates her business as Ocean Sunrise Wellness and can be contacted at 416 930 1140