At last, in-person school begins, and with it the question: What do we do about lunch?
Kids want fun food that tastes good, while parents strive to provide a meal that supplies good nutrition and is sure to be consumed.
An easy and healthy option is to purchase meals at school. To help, there is a new School Nutrition & Fitness Mobile “Web Menu” App available. This offers an easy way to view menus and nutrient information for products right from your smart phone. You can get interactive menus with nutrient information, descriptions, photos and allergens. It will link you to the online payment system and Nutrition Services website.
This is just one more step they have made to raise the bar on school meals. Menus are healthier than ever, offering a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free/low-fat fluid milk. Meals meet the nutrition needs of students within their age-specific calorie requirements as required by USDA. For information, visit fcpsnutrition.com, email [email protected], or call 301-644-5061.
Some families prefer to pack meals at home, which can be a tall order to fill. Remember, just because the lunchbox comes home empty doesn’t mean the food was eaten. Any student will admit that trading, giving away, and just plain trashing of unwanted food abounds in school cafeterias.
Knowledge of what your child likes to eat is the key to packing a successful lunch. While this sounds obvious, it is the best way to ensure your child will actually eat what you pack. Take the time to discuss food likes and dislikes with your child. You may discover what was disliked in the past is now acceptable and vice versa. This is also a good opportunity to teach what constitutes a proper meal.
Involving your child in grocery shopping is another way to widen their culinary horizons. For example, point out during a shopping trip that sandwiches don’t always have to be made on bread. Bagels, tortillas, naan and pita bread can also be used to add variety and interest.
Encourage your child to help make his or her lunch with you each evening. Not only does this allow your child to “preview” the next day’s lunch, but it also can be a time for new lunch creations to evolve. One child slathered a peeled banana with peanut butter, drizzled honey over it and wrapped a tortilla around it all for a new lunchtime sandwich. While a bit unconventional, it provided good nutrition, fun, and gave the child a sense of pride at his creation.
Parents should keep in mind that a healthful lunch consists of one or two servings of grains, a serving each of fruit and vegetable, one serving of protein, and a serving of a low-fat dairy product. You may find it helpful to create a food table with columns: whole grains, fruit, vegetable, meat/protein, dairy and beverages. List those foods favored by your child under each heading. Food has to be eaten to be nutritious, so spend some time to discover what they will eat, understanding preferences will change.
Finally, look at your child’s portion sizes. Many parents serve adult-sized portions to their young children and then label them “picky” eaters when food is left on the plate at each meal. It is unrealistic to expect a 6-year-old to finish an adult-sized club sandwich or even a large piece of fruit, for example. A good rule of thumb for young children is to serve 1 tablespoon of food for each birthday they’ve had. Some children will be satisfied with half a sandwich, especially if it contains meat, lettuce, tomato or other vegetables. Knowing your child’s appetite is as important as knowing food preferences.
Food safety rules for brown bag lunches are basic. As with any food preparation, the key is to keep hot food hot, cold food cold and everything clean. This means washing hands before handling food and scrubbing utensils, counters, lunchboxes and thermos bottles with hot, soapy water after each use to prevent the growth of bacteria that might contaminate other foods.
An insulated thermos does a good job of keep soups and stews at safe temperatures. Since most kids do not have access to a refrigerator at school, keeping cold foods cold can be more of a challenge. Pack the lunch in an insulated lunch box, with a frozen gel pack or frozen juice box to keep cold foods cold.
Studies show that both nutrition and fitness can have a significant impact on daily attendance, classroom participation, test scores and even behavior, all important factors to learning. Help students make the grade by eating lunch at school or packing lunch. Eligible students receive meals at reduced prices or free. To access forms and income eligibility guidelines, visit www.myschoolapps.com/Application.
Whether you choose to pack lunch or purchase school meals, a healthy lunch will promote student success. Have a great school year!
Deborah Rhoades, MA, RD, FAND, is a licensed Registered Dietitian, Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics, and Extension Educator in Family and Consumer Sciences.