Beyond School Lunch: Finding Balance with Healthy Eating
School lunches have gotten a bad reputation lately. And while some of it may be warranted, many districts are working hard to introduce fresh produce and healthier options to the lunch lines. While it’s true that the healthiest option of all would be to pack a lunch for your child, there are many reasons that may not always be practical or even possible. So what’s a parent to do?
Do What You Can
If it’s possible to pack a lunch 2 or even 3 days during the week, that can make a difference. When you’re packing a lunch, make sure there’s a whole grain option like 100% whole wheat bread, fruits and even vegetables. And find the least processed version of protein that you can. Hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter (or the soynut butter options for allergy-free schools), low-fat cheese, beans, or even leftover like chicken are all good options.
Most schools also offer a few different lunch options. If you know your child is going to have school lunch, talk about what the options are and try to encourage your kids to try things. Some districts post their lunch menus online. Take a look at the week ahead and together, help identify what are the healthier choices.
If school lunch isn’t quite what you’d like it to be, make sure the beginning and the end of your child’s day are filled with healthy food choices. Don’t make the easy choice of fast food or eating out for dinner.
Be the Change You Want to See
While it may be hard to admit, often we want to be the fun parents – the ones who bring the cool snacks for school or sports practice. But, rather than give in to pressure, think about how you can make healthy food options fun. Fruit and cheese kabobs, yogurt, dips like hummus or even salsas with baked pita chips, healthy snack mixes – the ideas are endless and can still be quick and easy to prepare.
Look for real food instead of processed foods. Why serve fruit leathers instead of real apples. Both are just as portable, but one is definitely a better choice. Just because the box may say fortified with vitamins and minerals, doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest option.
Consider serving sizes as well. MyPlate is a great way for the entire family (including grandparents) to understand serving sizes and what really should be appearing on the plate. ChooseMyPlate.gov is a great resource to learn more and find helpful resources for your family.
Remember It’s Not All or Nothing
It’s easy to single out particular foods and label them as “bad” or “good,” but in reality it’s a variety of foods that make up a healthy diet (or the opposite, an unhealthy one). Moderation is truly the key, and that’s why it’s important to help kids understand how to make healthier choices.
Let’s say the team goes out to a fast-food restaurant after a game. It’s okay for kids to have that burger, but instead of automatically having fries and a soda along the side, encourage them to chose a green salad and water or milk instead. (And here’s a hint – that works in the school lunch line as well).
Coach and Cue
Coach kids on eating well, and cue them in on what to look for. For example, when you’re sitting down to eat, ask kids to identify the different elements – where’s the protein, where’s the fruit, where’s the vegetable, etc. After awhile you can hold items back and see if they notice, or introduce unusual fruits and veggies and have them guess. For parents of young kids, this can be a great way to start out teaching about healthy diets, but it can work at just about any age.
It also helps everyone in the family start to think about how to make a meal or snack more complete. We all get into ruts sometimes – how many mornings do you have the exact same breakfast? But taking a moment to think, “how can I make this meal more complete?” can help. If you have the bowl of whole-grain, high-fiber, low-sugar cereal, perhaps you add ½ cup fresh blueberries along with the milk. It’s the simple additions that can really make a big difference.
How do you encourage good eating habits in your kids?