Bag it or buy it? What's healthier and what will they eat? It's a question faced by parents each school year. Often, there's an assumption that bagging is better, but there's also the convenience and choices of school lunch to consider. Good news: both the tray and the tote can be winning meals. A few important facts can help make this year's lunchtime decisions a breeze.
New school lunch initiatives
Much attention has been paid to children's health and there's an increased awareness that lunch at school is a critical source of nutrition for students. New federal guidelines have been introduced to ensure that menus provide more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables and less fat and sodium. Thanks to dedicated efforts driven by schools, parents and the federal government, many positive changes are occurring.
As of this fall, school lunches will also offer more produce, including dark green, red and orange vegetables, dry beans and legumes, all of which are nutrient-rich.
"There's a lot happening in the lunch line," says Dr. Brian Wansink, researcher and professor at Cornell University. Wansink and Dr. David Just, researcher and associate professor at Cornell University, created Smarter Lunchrooms, a multi-faceted program that provides schools with tools that can improve children's eating behaviors in the cafeteria.
"It's a common misconception that kids won't eat healthy foods, but our work shows that not to be the case. We can encourage healthy choices in the way we present foods to kids," says Wansink. He and his team have carefully studied the cafeteria line and how kids choose foods. The placement of foods on the lunch line, how foods are named on the menu and offering choices significantly affect which foods kids select.
For example, moving fruit from a commercial bin to an attractive fruit bowl near the end of the line is proven to increase selection. "Banning favorite foods such as tacos and pizza from a cafeteria can backfire," adds Wansink. "When kids feel restricted or forced into a decision, they rebel and may choose not to eat. Nobody wins in that scenario. We know a healthy lunch is necessary for good school performance."
Companies have stepped up to improve nutrition by creating new versions of kid-favorite foods that meet the new USDA school meal rules. Stir-fry, tacos, pastas and pizzas have become healthy fare as lower fat, lower sodium, whole grain versions have been introduced.
As of this fall, school lunches will also offer more produce, including dark green, red and orange vegetables, dry beans and legumes, all of which are nutrient-rich. More farm-to-school programs add the option of locally grown produce for portions of the school year.
Much like the cafeteria, the quality of a bag lunch hinges on what's been chosen and eaten. To paraphrase Wansink, it's not nutrition until it's eaten.
One easy step to improve the quality of a bag lunch and the chance it will be enjoyed is to increase your kids' involvement in the process. Have them help shop for foods and talk to them about which food categories make a lunch that makes a difference. Then have them help bag it up.
Remember that drinks matter at lunchtime. Soda, fruit drinks, and popular energy drinks and sports drinks lack calcium and often contain added sugars. That's a problem. Up to 90 percent of a person's bone density is formed by age 18 and those school years are crucial for building bone strength to last a lifetime. Be sure to pack a calcium-rich drink.
New grains and new ways of making bread mean better whole grain bread choices are available for sandwiches. Breads can be soft and moist yet still deliver whole grain goodness plus, in some cases, enough nutrients to rival fruits and vegetables.
Food safety is a big concern for bag lunches. Perishable foods need to be eaten within two hours if they're left at room temperature and most brown bag lunches sit in a desk or locker for longer than that, turning them into bacteria havens and making them risky to eat. Home-packed meals need to be put in insulated, chilled bags that will keep foods in a safe temperature zone, sometimes for four or five hours. If your child isn't keen on carrying an insulated bag (many older kids aren't), or to reduce overall food safety risks, school lunches are an easy, nutritious fix.
Lunchtime is a highlight of many school days and an essential part of a productive one. Talk with your kids about what they eat and how lunch can help or hold them back from learning, running faster at recess or performing their best in after school activities. A healthful lunch will keep them fully fueled for the rest of their day.