Fueling the day with a fantastic school lunch

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Nutritious, filling meals are essential for kids to function optimally throughout a long school day.  Kidshealth.org encourages parents and children to think of school lunch as “the fuel you put in your tank.”  So what’s the “right” fuel to keep your kids’ minds and bodies running for the day?

What does a healthy lunch look like?

“To me a healthy lunch has a decent macronutrient balance: protein fat and carbs,” says nutritionist Jennifer Stanley, who also has a daughter entering kindergarten this fall.  “For my picky kid, I usually pack a protein like peanut butter, organic yogurt or low fat lunch meat. There’s always a fruit for something fresh and a little fiber. Low fat, and low sugar is my goal. Some of our go-tos are typically pretzels, veggie straws, or graham crackers.  I want to fill up her tummy and get her some energy without her feeling weighed down or sugared out only to crash later.”

Like Stanley, kidshealth.org recommends packing plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains while limiting high fat and high sugar foods, refined grains and packaged snacks.  Remember to think about what your kids are drinking as well: sodas and fruit juices can be high in sugar and calories. Water is always a good choice!

The lunch options offered by all CMS schools follow the Enhanced-Food Based Guidelines established by the USDA and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Following these guidelines ensures a lunch that adds up to one-third of a student’s recommended intake of calories, fat, proteins, vitamins and minerals. All CMS school meals meet the USDA guidance for low saturated fat, cholesterol, zero added trans fats, whole grains, high fiber and reduced sodium.

To buy or to pack?

When it comes to nutrition, it’s tough to generalize about whether it’s better to purchase or pack a lunch.  “Overall, I feel like the healthiness is pretty balanced between the two options,” says mom Jennifer Allen. “I know school lunches in the US get a bad rap, but I feel like most of them are pretty healthy and offer a variety of the food groups.”

Of course, not all lunches – purchased or packed – are created equal.  School cafeterias offer options meant to balance nutrition with student preferences and special dietary considerations.  Cafeterias offer a variety of options in different categories each day: meats and meat alternatives, grains, vegetables, fruits, and milk.  When purchasing a full lunch, students must select an item from at least three different categories, and one of their selections must be a fruit or vegetable.  At least two meatless entrees are offered daily.

When Bain Elementary’s cafeteria opens for business on August 27.  Students will be able to choose from four different entrees: cheese pizza, pepperoni pizza, sweet and spicy chicken with pineapple fried rice, and chicken caesar chef salad with flatbread.  Vegans and vegetarians will have additional choices: yogurt bag, hummus with sunflower seeds and tostitos, or a sunbutter and grape jelly sandwich. Veggie choices will include sweet kernel corn, roasted stir fry vegetables, side caesar salad and baby carrots with ranch dip; fruit choices will include fresh apple and pear slices, peaches or raisins.  Consider the choices your child might make: a sunbutter and grape jelly sandwich with carrots and apples isn’t exactly equal to a pepperoni pizza with raisins.

There’s no way around it: kids make their own choices in the cafeteria, not only in terms of what to put on their plates but also what to eat and what to throw away.  Some cafeteria-purchased meals are healthier than others. Menus are available in advance on the CMS website. If your child plans to purchase lunch, you may want to make a habit of looking at the choices ahead of time and discussing them.

A packed lunch isn’t automatically healthier than a purchased one, but there are clear cost advantages to packing lunch for your kids.  Lunch prices range from $2.00 to $2.50 for Pre-K through High School students with additional a la carte snack, beverage and lunch items available for purchase.  Students can pay for purchases with cash or on a lunch account. Free and reduced lunch is available for families who meet certain criteria.

“As far as cost, packing is definitely less expensive,” says Allen.  “School lunch is $2.50 for the basic, nothing extra, lunch. So if you have a big eater, it could be as much as double that. For the price of one week of school lunch, I can buy ingredients to make two weeks of packed lunch, and there is always the option of packing leftovers.”

$2.50 a day may not seem like much, but it adds up quickly for large families.  “I pack lunches for the twins as school lunch costs add up when you have three kids in the school system,” says mom of four Barbie Tallent.  “When you have more than one kid to buy lunch for, yes, packing lunches is more cost effective as I am buying foods in bulk at discount prices.”

Additionally, packing lunch isn’t a one-size-fits-all option.  You can pack healthy foods that you know your kids like. “I know what my kids will and will not eat,” says Tallent.  “This means there is very little food waste and they eat enough to fill their tummies and gain needed energy to finish the day. When buying school lunches, kids are given foods they may not eat and aren’t given replacements. I’ve watched kids eat just a slice of meat and cheese from their school sandwich and nothing else because they don’t like the foods offered. That’s not enough.”

“I find the school lunch to be reasonably priced, but the kids prefer me to pack a lunch and I like having some say in what they eat during school,” says mom of three Emily D’Elia, who prefers to pack lunch in bento-style separated tupperware like EasyLunchboxes 3-compartment lunch box containers.  “I typically cook extra dinner the night before and pack the entree. Then in the morning, I add the items for the other two compartments, like a fruit and some nuts, cheese or other protein. It makes packing lunches a lot faster since I have to pack three lunches.”

One other advantage of packing a lunch from home is getting kids’ invested in the process of choosing and preparing their own food.  Allen talks with her eighth and tenth grade daughters about what options they would like in their lunches for the next two weeks, and then the girls pack for themselves.  D’Elia also plans to have her children begin packing their own lunches this year by having baskets they can choose items from to fill out their lunchboxes.

How to pack the perfect lunch

If you’re planning on packing school lunch, especially for multiple children, you’re going to need the right gear.  “I find that a good insulated bag is best to keep food cool, especially this time of year when it’s still pretty hot,” says Allen.  “I prefer actual Thermos brand thermoses, they come in several sizes for a variety of different things.”

To keep packed lunches nutritious, Stanley advises parents to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The price and convenience of packaged foods can make them appealing, but Stanley cautions that the more processed a food is, the less healthy it is likely to be.  “Sugar and salt will be heavier to maximize tastiness, and shelf life, extra fat to improve mouth feel, and there will be lots of preservatives as well,” she says.

Avoiding prepared and packaged fresh food (diced fruit and vegetables, pre-sliced cheese) is one way to keep costs down.  Buying in bulk from warehouses like Sam’s and Costco can also be a cost-saving measure, especially for large families. Make sure to watch for sales and BOGO items at your neighborhood grocery store.  Sending water in a reusable bottle is an environmentally friendly low cost alternative to juice or milk cartons.

For once in a while snacks and treats, Stanley has a clear recommendation: Aldi.  “For those once in a while treats like potato chips, their prices can’t be beat,” she says.  “They have a great selection of conventional and organic products. Just don’t get sucked in to individually packaged items.  Throw stuff in a Tupperware to save mega-bucks!”

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Mary Beth Foster
Mary Beth Foster works part time as an essay specialist at Charlotte Latin School and full time as a mom to her eight-year-old daughter Hannah and her six-year-old son Henry. Prior to having children, she worked as a high school English teacher for nine years. Most recently, she chaired the English department at Queen's Grant High School. She and her husband have lived in Mint Hill with their children and their cats since 2011. Email: marybeth@minthilltimes.com