So a University of Texas study finds that more than half of lunches brought from home by preschoolers do not meet recommended nutritional guidelines. Sadly, this isn’t a huge surprise.
What is surprising is the headline on the first version we saw of the press release about it (via ScienceDaily): Packing a Lunch for Preschoolers May Not Be a Good Idea.
No. No. No.
Of course, in and of itself, packing a lunch is neither a good idea or bad. As the study suggests, it’s the composition of that lunch that matters. And if kids aren’t getting the proper nutrition from the lunches they bring from home, parents need to learn how to fix the problem.
Here are some thoughts and tips from the September 2006 issue of our newsletter Biosis:
Good Nutrition for Kids…Away from Home
If you’ve ever been in a convenience store near a high school at lunchtime, you’ve probably seen kids plunking down their money for chips, sodas, snack cakes, candy and other junk. These foods are seldom bought as an added treat to a healthy lunch. Most of the time, they are lunch.
Good nutrition is important for all of us, but especially kids. Their bodies and minds continue to grow all the way through adolescence. Those who eat nutritionally-poor diets are likely at risk for permanent cognitive deficiencies, even if they improve their eating habits later in life. They also pollute their biological terrain, setting the stage for future physical and mental illnesses. Suffice it to say, it’s crucial that we teach our children to eat regularly and well, so they may grow into healthy, productive adults.
Teaching most obviously – and effectively – starts at home. The higher quality of meals you serve your kids – low in sugar, salt and refined, processed carbs – the less likely they’ll develop a taste for sugary junk foods. If you let your children watch TV, watch it with them and take the opportunity to talk about both the commercials and programs, and how they try to create desire for products that aren’t always good for us.
Laying such groundwork early should help make things a bit easier when the kids are school-age and eating lunches away from home on a regular basis.
Before school each day, make sure your kids have something to eat so they’ll have the energy they need through the morning and lessen the desire to overeat at noon or snack on sugary foods that may give a quick energy boost but little nutrition. What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that children who eat breakfast are less likely to grow obese than those who regularly skip this meal.
But what about lunch? Mornings, when you’re trying to get ready for work and the kids off to school, it can be tempting to just drop a pre-made meal in a bag or a few dollars in each child’s hand to buy lunch. Even so, the little ones often beg for food that’s “fun,” while the older kids want to be sure to have something “cool.” For not only do kids want food that tastes good. They want something that will help them fit in. And while providing this would seem to require a lot of creativity at a time of day when most of us aren’t feeling too creative, it’s not really so daunting a task. With a little planning and nutritional knowledge, you can easily give your kids lunches that are both wholesome and likeable.
- Avoid the temptation to resort to convenience meals. Lunchables are arguably the worst offender in the category. Even the “healthier” versions contain high amounts of salt, sugars, saturated fat and trans fat. Some even contain more than half the daily allowance. Vegetables and fresh fruits don’t seem to exist, making these meals low in dietary fiber. If your child likes the finger-food fun of such meals, create your own version. Just put together some slices of lunchmeat, cheese and whole grain crackers, then add to it some fresh raw veggies.
- If you allow your child to eat sugar, include only one source of it per lunch. An excess of sugar at noon is prelude to a mid-afternoon crash. If you include fruit or some baked treat like cookies, do not include fruit juice. If you include juice, do not include other sweets. You might create a stash of alternative, non-food treats to include instead. You can also show your care by placing positive, encouraging notes in your child’s lunch bags – tokens of affection they will remember for years to come.
- Include foods with healthy fats. The human brain is made almost entirely of fat, and a lack of good dietary fats can easily interfere with brain development in children. It’s thus crucial that kids eat enough unsaturated fats each day, which also provide sustained energy. Good sources include nuts, trail mix, olives and avocado. And while you may wish to limit intake of saturated fat, do avoid low-fat versions of foods, which can contain a good amount of sugar, as well as synthetic additives and preservatives. Instead, just provide smaller portions of full-fat foods.
- Make sure the meal is balanced. In addition to unsaturated fats, it should also include some quality protein and carbohydrate. The carbs should come chiefly from vegetables and whole grain products, not refined flour products, sugars and starches. An easy way of balancing a meal is to let color be your guide. Include foods of at least four different colors in each meal: for instance, white turkey on dark brown bread with yellow cheese, a side of green raw broccoli and some nice red berries for dessert. Eating an array of natural colors generally assures you’ll get a wide variety of nutrients from the meal.
- Encourage your child to help put the lunch together. Give them some ownership of their dietary choices while also taking the opportunity to teach them about healthy eating habits. Chances are, if they help make their own lunch, they’ll eat more of it. It can also provide good bonding time – to talk about what’s going on, what the day holds, any problems your child is facing and other important issues. This is another way in which food is about more than just eating and re-energizing. It continues to exist as a form of socializing and community-building…and family-building.