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Why Your Kids Need A Healthy Lunch

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Has your child depleted their lunch account yet?  It usually takes about 8-10 weeks.  With this in mind, I thought it woudl be a great time to discuss school lunches. I like to ask my patients and their parents about their school lunches becasue it is interesting to hear what kids like to eat for lunch. Like so many things, there is a huge amount of variability surrounding school lunch choices.

It seems that elementary school aged children enjoy buying school lunch especially when the cafeteria experience is novel. But because the choices are typically not as plentiful in the elementary school cafeteria, some children will choose to the take their lunch. The one thing that I find to be most typical is that the pizza and chicken nugget lunch days are a lot more popular than grilled chicken and vegetable days. Unfortunately, school lunches are not typically the most “healthy” and are often loaded with fats.

By the time children reach middle school and high school the cafeteria becomes more of a smorgasbord of choices and the “hot lunch” tray is not the only choice available. With the vast array of choices from salads, to sandwiches and many snack items, I often hear that the “tween” and teen set pick and choose their favorite foods and fall far short of anything that resembles a well balanced lunch. The combination of a hamburger and fries, or a bagel and yogurt may be the chosen lunch items. I rarely hear milk as the beverage of choice.

By the time teens their junior and senior year in high school many campuses allow their students to have “off campus” lunches. In this case the “fast food world” awaits them around every corner. It is not unusual for this age group to enjoy a “super sized” combo meal and a large Coke. Most of the girls I see opt for a “diet” Coke to round out the meal. Probably not what most parents would consider a healthy lunch. The word fruit is rarely mentioned.

To start teaching children about healthy eating habits we need to begin in early elementary school. Sit down with your child and the school lunch menu and look over the choices. It might make sense to “make a deal” that they may buy their lunch two days a week and you will pack them a lunch on the other three days. They can put stars or check marks on the days that they want to buy.

When packing a lunch let your child be involved, while at the same time guiding their choices. The prepackaged pizza and lunchables are not good choices. Choose whole grain breads for the sandwich. Use lean sandwich meats. Add some cheese for some added calcium. Peanut, almond or cashew butter provides protein too. Cut up veggies in clever ways to make them more appealing. Chips may be baked and put them in your own sandwich bag. There are many great ways to pack and delicious and healthy lunch, and it is probably cheaper too!

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

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