New Year's Resolution: Pack a Better Lunch

Health Writer

The  National School Lunch Program  has been shown to offer more nourishing meals than those being packed daily by parents. Despite this wonderful news, the program is under attack, with a pushback on salt restrictions and whole grain guidelines.  With nearly 60 percent of kids getting half or more of their day's calories from school lunch programs, and nearly 50 million kids being serviced by the school cafeteria, we need to fight to keep the healthier guidelines in place. Despite some small studies and surveys that indicated that kids were throwing away these healthier lunches, in truth, they are not tossing the food. A recent study actually found that healthier school cafeteria lunches had the same "toss rate" compared to the less healthy meals served prior to 2012.Our kids need these nutritious meals. They also need mom and dad to aim for similar standards at home.

Lunches from  home, on average, had fewer portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk, compared to the current nationally mandated school lunch menu.   Home-packed lunches also had desserts, chips and sweet (non-dairy) drinks.   Two other studies showed that meals prepared at home contained more calories, fat (specifically saturated fat) and sugar, and less protein, fiber and calcium. Furthermore, no additional  waste  was being generated due to the healthier quality of school lunches, and more variety of fruits and vegetables were being eaten by students.

Frankly, these same guidelines should be embraced by adults too Does your child's home-packed meal or your own lunch, include the following?

  • One half to one full serving of fruit
  • Three quarters to one cup of vegetables (variety)
  • A serving of 1 percent or fat-free milk (or milk substitute like fortified soy milk or almond milk)
  • A serving of whole grains
  • An age-appropriate serving of protein (lean or non-meat)

Equally important, are you sending your child to school with about 500 calories of fats and  sugars, and a hefty dose of sodium? Chances are that's what you are doing to show them love and to make sure they eat their packed lunch. You're probably treating yourself to a similar dose of junk food and unhealthy choices during your work day.   It can't be a surprise to you that if your kids only eat chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and sugary juices, that's all they will want to eat. If you grew up eating that way, or somehow adopted that menu plan for yourself, chances are that's what you're choosing for your kids.

It's time to wise up in 2015 and to do the heavy lifting in terms of slowly shifting the  family diet. Lunch is a good place to start, and the guidelines should apply to both your and your child's brown bag lunch. Here's a great outline to use (just increase the portion sizes for adults).

  • Include at least two servings of vegetables. Carrots, celery, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower florets and cubed butternut squash are some good choices.
  • Include a single fruit, or even two. Apples, pears, small tangerines, grapes, blueberries and bananas are all portable.
  • Two to four ounces of  protein.  Hard-boiled egg, peanut (or any nut) butter single packs, chicken, tuna, beans, Greek yogurt and low-fat cheeses are good options.
  • A bottle or container of water and a container of skim or 1 percent milk.
  • A serving of whole grains. Cereal, bread, tortilla, pita, pasta, rice or a baked white/sweet potato, on occasion, are all good choices. Make sure you choose "100 percent whole grain" options.
  • Snacks can include an extra piece of fruit, a small yogurt, a small high-protein nutrition bar, a small serving of nuts, or a piece of string cheese.

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