Choosing healthful school lunches and snacks

September 24th, 2018

Students have been back to school for a few weeks now, but families may still be discussing whether children should take a brown-bag lunch to school or purchase a meal at the school’s café.

A group of children sit at their desks in a classroom eating lunch.
Healthy school lunches should include lean protein, whole grains, vegetables, fruit and some kind of dairy like milk, yogurt or cheese. Photo: Getty Images.

School lunches, improving in recent years, may offer some healthful options and some not-so-healthful ones.

Given the choice, many kids will choose the latter – like pizza every day, no veggies and high-sugar chocolate milk, said Anita Wolfe, a nurse practitioner at UCHealth’s Lone Tree Primary Care clinic in Lone Tree.

With 24 years of professional practice, specializing in women’s and children’s health, and nine years as a mom under her belt, Wolfe is a good person to ask about creating healthful lunches for kids.

“It’s really all about those choices,” she said. “At school, they may have a healthy option, like a salad bar, but the kids still choose pizza or a hamburger and french fries every day. I think all their options should be healthy options. I send my own kid’s lunches because given the choice she may not choose the healthy option.”

Also, homemade lunches are usually better because a parent can tailor the meal to the child’s needs and tastes. If your child has a food allergy or dietary issue, for example, you can address that, she said.

Also, school lunches tend to be repetitive. They serve the same things over and over.

With a homemade lunch, “you can have variety and make it healthy and what your child likes and will eat,” she added.

Ideally, a healthful lunch – one-third of your child’s daily intake of nutrition – should include some form of lean protein, a whole grain, a vegetable, fruit, and a source of calcium, like milk, yogurt or cheese.

“The protein should not be fried. Chicken tenders are OK if they’re white meat chicken strips that are baked. But not so much if they are a processed chicken product that is heavily breaded and fried,” Wolfe said.

The same dish served at school may not be nutritionally equivalent to the one made at home. Mac and cheese, for example is likely made from white pasta and processed cheese at school. At home, she uses high-protein pasta and natural cheese.

But homemade lunches don’t have to be that elaborate,
Wolfe said.

“There’s nothing wrong with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread,” she said. Her own daughter doesn’t like jelly, so Wolfe dots the peanut butter with a few semi-sweet chocolate chips as an alternative treat.

“All kids love sweets, so it’s OK to throw in a bit of sweet,” like a chocolate kiss or a mini candy bar, she said. “There’s nothing wrong with a little sugar if you eat healthy otherwise.”

So what are some healthful things a parent can pack for a kid’s lunch?

Sandwiches and wraps with whole-grain bread or tortillas, lean meat and veggies are a good standby.

Raw veggies, such as carrots, celery, jicama and grape tomatoes – with or without dip – are a good choice. (Be sure the dip is low-fat.) Or look for baked veggie straws or baked potato chips in single serving pouches as a side to a sandwich.

“A lot of kids love those little seaweed packets,” Wolfe said. I don’t like seaweed, but my daughter does, and all of her friends love it, too.”

Kids also love string cheese, she said, and that’s an alternative source of calcium. You could also add a mini yogurt (check the sugar content) for a calcium boost.

For fruit, she likes to send fresh strawberries, apple slices or Clementines, which she peels because most kids’ lunch breaks are short and they don’t have time to peel fruit.

Wolfe also recommended buying high-protein, low-fat milk (like 1 percent or skim) and noted that some milk products are also lower in sugar.

Instead of buying those ready-made lunch packs in the grocery store, make your own with chunks of turkey or low-sodium ham, natural cheese and whole-grain crackers.

Leftovers from home can make good lunches, too. Leftover chili or soup (or a good canned soup with veggies or beans) are ideal for winter-time lunches, but you may need to invest in a Thermos to keep them warm.

“In some elementary schools, kids can’t use the microwave,” she noted.

There are lots of new, creative recipes that incorporate healthful foods into treats – like brownies made with avocado, or muffins made with applesauce and protein powder. They can make a nice addition to a lunch sack.

Some good protein bars are also healthful. Some taste like a cookie or even a candy bar, but are high in protein, she said. Just read the labels to watch for high levels of sugar.  Wolfe says protein bars often have enough calories to satisfy a child at lunch. She uses them once in a while for her daughter.

“If she’s tired of sandwiches, I’ll give her a high-protein bar with some string cheese and some veggies, like baby carrots or celery with peanut butter,” Wolfe said. “She even likes raw broccoli – dipped in ketchup.”

What things should you avoid in lunches?

Wolfe said to limit high-sugar treats, at least in any quantity. She also recommends avoiding juice boxes – “too high in sugar.”

If your child drinks milk, that’s the best option as a beverage, but if not, try good old water, or one of the flavored (but not sweetened) bottled waters. If they don’t drink milk, opt for one of the calcium replacements already mentioned.

One issue with brown-bag lunches is food safety. Wolfe suggested putting a freezer pack in your child’s lunch to keep everything cool until lunchtime. Milk can be purchased in containers that don’t need refrigeration, too. The freezer pack will cool it down for palatability.

Wolfe places every food item in a separate container to avoid cross-contamination of flavors or moisture.

She also recommends wiping out your child’s lunch box with an antibacterial wipe every night to avoid contamination. For kids who don’t get a chance to wash their hands before lunch, she also recommends including a sanitary wipe for them to do so before eating.

When shopping for lunch-bag worthy food items, she urges parents to avoid foods with high sugar content, or to find foods packed with protein. She often buys single-serving size items.

“Read labels,” she advised, “and always check expiration dates.”

All the lunch ideas can apply to after-school snacks as well, she said.

And what about starting the day right? Kids need fuel to do well in school, and it starts with the morning meal.

Because she, like many others, is a working mom, she needs to get breakfast on the table quickly.

If your kids like eggs, they are an ideal high-protein quick fix in the mornings. But her daughter doesn’t like eggs. So she might make a smoothie with a cup of low-fat milk with protein powder and some fruit.

“Whey protein a good addition to a smoothie,” Wolfe said. “And I don’t know what kid won’t drink a shake in the morning.”

Sometimes she’ll make whole-grain pancakes or French toast and spread them with peanut butter (and freeze the rest for another day). Or, if she is really busy, she’ll give her daughter a bowl of high-fiber, high protein cereal or oatmeal with high-protein milk.

“It’s OK to have some sugar and carbs if you can get some protein with it,” she said.

Packing your child’s lunch – one they really like – is cost-effective, too, she said. If they eat it, then it is money well spent. If not, it’s just cash in the trash.


About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.