PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Healthy School Lunches

Posted on Sep 3, 2014


BLOGschoollunchFor many parents, packing their children’s lunches and snacks can feel like guesswork. Will they eat it, or not? Packing sugary, unhealthy items may often seem like the only way to make sure they eat something during the school day.

However, don’t give up on healthy foods, even if your children don’t always return from school with an empty lunch box. The preschool and elementary school years are a critical time to help children learn healthy eating habits for life.

Manisha Panchal, M.D., a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, offers these simple guidelines to help you create healthy school lunches.

Use the five food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy) as your guide. Including an item from each of these groups in your child’s lunch box will help ensure a balanced meal. For example, you might pack an apple, carrot sticks, whole-grain crackers, a cheese stick and a handful of unsalted nuts, if your child is not allergic to nuts and your child’s school does not have a “No Nut” policy.

Nix the sugary snacks. Don’t think you always have to include a cookie or a piece of candy – these items should be an occasional treat. Instead, pack nature’s candy – a piece of fresh fruit. Fruit such as apples, pears, mandarin oranges, grapes or berries make great portable snacks and can satisfy cravings for something sweet. Choose what’s in season, which is when it tastes best.

Pack in the protein. Make sure your child’s snacks always include some protein. Protein provides sustained energy and helps maintain blood sugar levels. That way your child won’t get hungry again too soon and will be able to function well at school. Good choices include cheese sticks, hummus, egg slices or nuts. For example, a high-quality snack might be an apple with some cheese cubes or nut butter, veggie sticks with hummus or a small handful of dried fruit and nuts. Consider having your child help you make a special trail mix at home.

Stick to water. Avoid sugary drinks and juice boxes that pack calories and little else. Get your child into the habit of packing his own reusable water bottle every day. Add a slice of lemon or lime for taste.

Think outside the lunchbox. Finding creative ways to serve and combine foods can encourage your child to eat them. For example, use cookie cutters to create fun shapes for sandwiches and fruit or pack breakfast foods such as pancakes or waffles that your child can dip in applesauce.

Don’t feel like you should say “no” to every treat. This can have the reverse effect and make your child crave what he or she can’t have. Aiming for healthy lunches and snacks five days a week will help make healthy eating more sustainable.

Panchal_Manisha Manisha Panchal, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.