As a new school year approaches, an old question arises: what to pack for school lunches to support our children’s rapid development and also meet their high-energy demands?
On average, school lunches provide around 26% of daily calories—not a small number if we think of their cumulative effect on a child’s weekly diet. It is also the meal that generally contains less nutritionally dense food such as leafy greens, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
From ages 6 to 12, it is common to see a spike in children’s appetites, which can lead to more snacking between meals, making it even more important to offer a balanced school lunch that meets their growing demands. It is easy and convenient to default to “healthy” processed foods, in some cases unavoidably, as there is simply not time to do it all in the morning rush.
Parents are doing a great job, though, at providing alternatives to sugary foods and drinks, and the level of awareness on this topic is growing in the right direction. Schools are also playing their part by limiting or restricting access to overly processed, sugary foods, especially since the number of diabetic and obese children has tripled in Canada in the last 30 years; however, there is room for improvement.
Children should consume less than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, or 5% of their total energy intake, which averages around 60 calories. The over-consumption of sugar can not only impact their weight, but it has also been linked to cognitive impairment, negative neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to new environmental changes), and risk of tooth decay, inflammation, sluggish immunity response, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance.
It is easy to let enthusiasm carry us away and implement all the ideas and tips we encounter, but children are rooted in routine and changes need to be made gradually. Start small and expose them to a diversity of foods consistently and slowly.
Seemingly unrelated, but with great causative effect on hunger levels and a child’s readiness to eat their school lunch, is to provide a balanced breakfast that includes protein, healthy fats, and fibre, and not only simple carbohydrates. These foods provide a steady source of energy without disrupting blood glucose levels too rapidly, which allows them to develop healthy hunger cues and a willingness to eat their own lunches.
Protein is required for the formation of new muscle, organ, and bone tissue. Fat is fundamental for brain health, hormone protection, and nutrient absorption. Fibre helps with longer satiety periods and maintaining a steady glucose level, as it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, which also have a very important role in providing the body the necessary energy for its demanding activities.
Worried about the best sources of these types of foods?
Don’t be. When we focus on providing a variety of foods, we are generally providing a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals needed by our children’s bodies, although supplementation of certain vitamins and minerals might be necessary with certain restrictive diets.
Simply do your best to make diversity your best ally when designing your children’s plates. For example, pay attention to seasonal vegetables; they are high in nutrition and are most likely to be local—great qualities in a food. Branch out from the familiar whole grains like oats and quinoa to explore new options such as buckwheat, amaranth, or millet, and of course, make colour a fun element as well.
At the same time, consciously incorporate healthy fats such as coconut, almond, sunflower, or pumpkin butters to the eating routine. Fibre such as flax and chia can be added to fruit smoothies to minimize spikes in blood glucose levels. Lastly, protein can range from animal- to plant-based, according to your needs and beliefs.
”Back to School” can be a great opportunity to get your kids involved in the process of deciding what to eat and how to properly pack their own lunches. A few tips on this:
Pack with Diversity
- Get them to help
Display a variety of foods on the kitchen counter and let them choose and pack their own lunch.
- Pair new with faves
Offer new foods that you would like them to try, alongside foods they already love.
Offer new foods in the morning and lunchtime.
- Teach About Food Diversity
Develop a conversation around the idea that foods are neither good nor bad. They all have a place to be enjoyed.
- Be balanced
Avoid tension or stress when doing this lunch packing exercise. It might be helpful for you to play with the notion that it is your responsibility to provide the structure and the foods, and they can be responsible for what they choose to eat.
The main focus when providing a healthy, yet delicious school lunch resides in making the process fun, while providing the necessary foods for them to properly perform during their academic day. Consistency and not perfection is the name of the game.
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Laura Spencer is one of Nature’s Fare Markets’ vitamin specialists and a passionate foodie. She believes we can be as happy, healthier, and fulfilled as we allow ourselves to be. As a certified Holistic Nutritional Consultant, she works with people to help them achieve a healthy lifestyle by focusing on modifying behaviours and eating habits that are not working. bonfirenutrition.ca | @bonfirenutrition