Making lunches enjoyable and nutritious is a worthy pursuit, because food choices can have long-term impacts on health and learning, according to dietitian Carrie Miller.
“We ask a lot of children at school so it's important to nourish their bodies and their brains to learn,” Miller said. “If they eat a good variety of foods, they're going to stay full longer and they're going to be able to learn and behave better.”
Miller is an extension educator in Douglas and Sarpy Counties for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She also is the mother of a preschooler and of a son who will start second grade this month.
Miller urges her son to eat the school lunch and packs lunches on the occasional days when she knows he won't eat what is offered in the cafeteria.
School lunch programs must follow rigorous nutrition guidelines set by the federal government. “If kids eat the school lunch they will definitely get the nutrients they need,” she said.
But kids only get the nutrients if they eat the meals.
When Miller packs a lunch, she aims to incorporate foods from all the major food groups on a daily basis: grain (especially whole grain), protein, vegetables, fruits and dairy. She encourages other parents to do likewise and to strive for variety and creativity in what they pack.
Portions can be the same as those that satisfy children at home, and milk can be purchased at school.
“Give them foods that provide a lot of nutrients and not foods that are low in nutritional value, such as cookies and chips,” she said.
Occasional grocery shopping trips with the children should be part of the meal planning, Miller said.
“Show them the different fruits and vegetables and ask which ones they are willing to try,” she said. “They may surprise you. Ask them which whole-grain breads and crackers they are willing to try. When they're involved with the choice, they're more likely to eat it.”
Parents need to set a good example with their eating habits and continue to work with children to try previously rejected foods in new ways.
“Just because they didn't like it once doesn't mean they won't like it in six months or a year,” Miller said.
Changing the way a food is prepared can make a big difference to a child and increase the variety of foods you can slip into a lunchbox, according to Cathy Straub, a family and consumer science teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs.
In her foods classes, and with her own two children (now grown), she has learned to have kids taste foods first and then tell them what it is.
“If you give children the chance to try hummus, they may like it,” Straub said. “If they hear that it's chickpeas, they may say 'Oooh! That sounds nasty.' I'm amazed at the things kids like to eat if they're given the opportunity to try them.”
The teacher recalled one spinach hater in a foods class who became a spinach lover in the presence of spinach dip.
Children tend to be more receptive to new foods when parents involve them in discussions about menu planning, shopping, food preparation and nutrition, Straub said.
A hurdle that many parents and children must conquer involves the heavily advertised lunches sold in the refrigerated cases of many supermarkets. Advertising and peer pressure make prepackaged products difficult for children to resist, Straub said.
The teacher suggested parents explain that such meals tend to be high in sodium and more expensive than similar meals made at home.
Families can assemble healthier, lower-cost versions of the prepackaged meals with chunks of cheese, slices of roast turkey or beef and whole-grain crackers. The roasted meats can be leftovers from a home-cooked meal or purchased from a supermarket delicatessen, Straub said.
Working together on healthy lunches and modeling good eating behavior at home is worth the effort, Straub said.
“The child has a sense of ownership, is knowledgeable and introducing foods to friends,” she said.
“We are not saying you can't ever have chocolate chip cookies and potato chips. They're treats to have once in a while. We don't have to feel deprived. It's healthier in the long run.”