Research shows that children think more clearly, and perform better in school, when fed a steady diet of nutritious foods. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live, “The foods children consume early in life…ultimately supply their brain power. A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts and seeds is the only way to ensure children get an array of phytochemicals, antioxidants, fatty acids, and other micronutrients to adequately supply their growing brains.” This means that moms like me can greatly influence our kids’ potential for success in school, by making healthy choices for their lunch boxes.
Packing snacks and lunches is also a huge opportunity to teach strategies for long-term, sustainable health. If children are at school for more than half their waking hours, then at least 50% of their dietary habits and preferences are being formed during this time. Every food you pack sends a message about what they should or shouldn’t choose to eat.
So, as you think about what you will send for lunch this year, remember that you are not just feeding your kids–you are also shaping their approach to lifelong wellness. Do your best to teach them how to create sustainable energy, and long-term health, with nutrient-dense foods. You, and your child, will be glad you did!
Here are a few strategies that work for our family:
1. Pack fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, and seeds first. Figure out what your kids like, and pack those healthy foods before anything else. Raw fruits and veggies have more nutrients than most other foods. Apples, bananas, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and pitted olives are some of my kids’ favorites. Let meats, dairy, chips, and sweets take up the smallest fraction of the lunch box, so that the majority of their foods are nutrient-dense.
2. Make it fun. My kids love to play what we call “The Rainbow Game”: pack fruits and veggies of every color of the rainbow except one, and tell your kids they need to report which one was missing when they get home. Use cookie cutters to create different shapes for fruits and sandwiches. Or create your own unique games to make them smile at lunch and snack time, when you can’t be there to do it in person.
3. Take your kids shopping! Empower kids with nutrition information, and encourage them to choose healthy foods at the store. Teach them how to read food labels, and let them decide what’s best (make sure to veto unhealthy choices with love). Keep a positive attitude, and let it be their idea whenever possible.
4. Start an ongoing dialogue about nutrition. Talk about the power of nutrient-dense foods, and why you make the choices you make for their meals. Ask your kids about the foods they ate at school. What vitamins and minerals were in your apple? Why were strawberries a healthy choice? If they don’t know, help them look it up. The more they understand the reasons behind your decisions, the more likely they are to accept them.
5. Save time with leftovers and prepared soups! Make sure you have a lunch-box sized thermos on hand, so reheated leftovers and soups stay warm until lunchtime. Get in the habit of doubling dinner recipes, so you have enough to send for lunch the next day. Boxed and canned organic soups can also be lifesavers, on days that you are short on time, or low on groceries.
6. Empower kids make their own trail mixes. Kids love to be creative! Make it easy for them to design their own trail mixes. Keep a variety of nuts, dried fruits, and gluten-free cereals on hand. A small handful of mini dark chocolate chips can make trail mix more palatable to picky eaters; it also adds antioxidants, and the sugar content is negligible.
7. Teach kids to choose water over sugary drinks. Milk and juice are high in sugar, and are therefore not good choices for kids that are trying to learn. And, of course, sodas and sports drinks are a big no-no. Kids that have too much sugar from these kinds of beverages at lunch, are bound to crash in the afternoon. Sugar also decreases their immunity, creates inflammation, and adds empty calories to their diet. Water is always best in the lunch box.
8. Don’t forget about healthy dips and stuffings. Kids love to dip and stuff foods. The trick is to give them nutritious options. Try to avoid ketchup and ranch dressing. Fresh salsas and bean dips, however, are great choices! Hummus is widely available, and comes in a variety of flavors. Nut butters are also a healthy option–try cashew, sunflower seed, or almond. Stuff baby bell peppers with hummus, and teach kids to dip and fill fruits with nut butters. You might be surprised how much they like it.
9. Forget the bread. Even if you are not allergic to gluten, bread is just not good for you. It is lower in nutrients than whole foods, and hard for the body to process. Why? Because wheat has been genetically modified so much over the years, that our bodies no longer recognize flour as food. It can create inflammation, sinus problems, insomnia, and stomach issues. If your kids insist on bread, try to limit how much you serve (maybe send half a sandwich instead of a whole, and double up on the fruits and veggies), and ask for gluten-free breads at your local store.
10. Put dessert in its place. It’s okay to send dessert to school, just not every day. Teach kids that dessert is a treat, to be enjoyed on special occasions, or sometimes just because! And remember, not all desserts are created equal. A piece of organic dark chocolate with cherries and almonds is always a better choice than a gummy bear with high fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring.
Most of all, try to be grateful for the chance to influence your kids’ eating habits. It might feel like a chore, but trust me on this: teaching our children about nutrition is one of the most powerful ways we have to show them how much we care.