Q: How can I pack a healthier lunch for my kids?
A: It is that time of year when parents start dusting off the lunch bags and cruising the grocery store for the latest in granola bar technology. While reverting to the same routine as last year seems simple enough, a few small changes can add serious nutritional value, without causing too much disruption to your family's usual routine.
A good, balanced lunch should include a protein source (lean meat, cheese, eggs, tofu, beans, and so on), one or two servings of fruit, and, ideally, a veggie or two. And while moms and dads might find reducing their carbohydrates helpful for weight management (I'm not saying you need to, if the salad-plus-chicken combo works for you instead of a sandwich, that's fine), growing kids do need the extra energy that grains (think whole grain breads, pitas, wraps, leftover pasta, rice, quinoa, etc.) can provide.
Beyond the basics, however, there are some other subtle substitutions you can make that will go a long way to helping your child pack a powerhouse lunch.
Instead of Applesauce, Send Apples
It's a simple change, but choosing a piece of whole fruit over a fruit puree -- yes, even the unsweetened varieties -- adds valuable vitamins (including vitamin C), minerals (including potassium), fibre and antioxidants that are lost when the peel is removed. The same goes for peaches, pears, plums and any fruit where the peel is usually eaten. And since apples are in season, now is a great time to bring home a variety of flavours to see which ones your kids love best.
Instead of Peanuts and Tree Nuts, Send Seeds or Soy Nuts
With most public schools going nut-free, it's tough for kids to get enough healthy fats (like the heart-healthy monounsaturated ones), vitamin E (found mostly in nuts and seeds) and magnesium (found in whole grains, nuts and seeds) in their diets. So if PB and J is verboten, try sending a trail mix with soy nuts (dry-roasted soy beans), sunflower or pumpkin seeds, raisins or cranberries, and Shreddies or Cheerios -- or whatever combination your kids enjoy. (And yes, a few chocolate chips are fine!) They're non-perishable and can be made in bulk at home.
Instead of Cucumbers, Send Cherry Tomatoes
When asked about the benefits of a particular fruit or vegetable over another, I have a simple rule: Any fruit or vegetable is better than none. But that doesn't mean that some aren't a notch better than others, and the rough rule is that the brighter coloured vegetables are more nutrient-dense. So if you're looking for a simple veggie to slice and pack, think green and red peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and carrots instead of celery and cucumbers. (And yes, a bit of dip is fine if that's what will get your kids to eat them!)
Instead of Fruit Juice, Send Milk
Milk has, in many ways, fallen out of favour. From fears of hormones and antibiotics to the belief held by some that humans should stop consuming dairy products after infancy (an interesting argument, but not for this space today), milk consumption among kids has declined steadily over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, at the same time, the intake of fruit juice and sweetened beverages has gone up. This means that we are substituting drinks that are high in sugar (even fruit juices are remarkably high in sugars, albeit naturally occurring ones), for one that is rich in protein, vitamin A, vitamin D and purported disease-fighting fat conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).The bottom line: For many kids, milk has more to offer than we give it credit for.
Instead of Deli Meat, Send Leftover Dinner Meat
While convenient, many commercially prepared deli meats are high in sodium (salt) and a source of nitrates, compounds that have been linked to colon cancer risk. While the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends no more than two servings of cured meats per week (think bacon and ham), having deli meats occasionally is still reasonable. But, if possible, try sending slices of leftover chicken or turkey breast (make extra if you usually run out), roast beef or pork (roast, tenderloin, etc.) on your kids' sandwich or wrap.
As for the Sweets…
You might think I'm about to admonish you for sending sweets with your kids, but let's get real: if you don't send them, there's a good chance they'll end up trading for them anyway. So if you want to minimize the damage, try sending homemade baked goods, like banana or carrot bread, oatmeal raisin cookies or fruit-based muffins. If they're made at least partially with whole wheat flour, they're not a bad choice, especially compared with commercially prepared versions that are often higher in white flour and sugar.
Jennifer Sygo, MSc, RD