Most parents and kids are familiar with this bagged school lunch: Peanut butter and jelly on white bread, an apple and a granola bar.
But this popular school lunch combo is severely lacking in nutritional elements that actually will keep hunger pangs at bay for school kids, said Jenny Favret, a registered dietitian and nutritionist with Duke Children's Duke Healthy Lifestyles Program. The program works with families to help build healthy lifestyles and minimize weight-related risk factors.
"It's not that any one of those components is bad, but, collectively, you're looking at a very high carbohydrates, potentially processed carbohydrates, meal," Favret said.
To improve on that lunch and give it a more lasting effect, Favret recommends switching out some items and substituting them with vegetables and foods that offer more protein and fat. For instance, stick with that PB&J and apple, but don't add more starch with a granola bar. Add a cheese stick and some cucumber slices, instead.
Favret said that as you pack school lunches for your kids, focus on making sure there's a good mix of protein, fats, fiber and whole grain carbohydrates.
While processed food is fine occasionally, Favret recommends parents steer clear of anything with high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oil, which is commonly found in crackers and many other processed items. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has found that partially hydrogenated oils are not fit for consumption. Food manufacturers must remove them from all products within three years.
"In the meantime, we have to be our own detective," Favret said. "We have to make sure we don’t put anything with that substance in our kids’ lunch."
I've packed enough school lunches in my day to know that it's easy to get into a rut. But Favret reminds us all that there are plenty of options out there.
Protein doesn't need to just come from deli meats or peanut butter. You could send cooked chicken breast from the night before, a black bean salad, nuts, a boiled egg or hummus. Cheese, nuts, eggs, avocados and Greek yogurt (not the fat free variety) are among the good sources of fat.
Unprocessed, whole grain carbohydrates are the goal when it comes to crackers, breads, cookies and cakes. Triscuits, Favret mentioned, are a great option for kids who like their crackers. (Just be on the lookout, Favret said, for treats and snack foods that claim to include whole grains, but really just add them as an afterthought and marketing gimmick).
"The lunches that are just all carbohydrates, the child is going to be hungry again much more quickly," Favret said.
Bull City Fit, a community-based wellness program that the Duke program created, shared these healthy school lunch examples that offer the right combination of protein, fat, carbs and fiber:
Tuna salad, veggies and fruit
Container of tuna salad made with Greek yogurt or with real mayonnaise (not fat free)
A few whole grain crackers that do not contain partially hydrogenated oil
Sliced cucumbers and carrots sprinkled with an herb blend
Piece of fruit
Sandwich, veggies and fruit
Sandwich on whole grain bread made with last night’s left over chicken and with several veggies for crunch such as lettuce, onion, sliced peppers and spinach
Grape tomatoes with a few olives mixed in
Piece of fruit
Finger food lunch
Assorted finger food proteins such as boiled egg, cheese cubes or string cheese, and sliced turkey
Raw veggies with hummus
A few blue corn or whole grain tortilla chips that don't contain partially hydrogenated oil
A handful of grapes
Salad and yogurt
Fill a container with salad. Top with one or more proteins such as chicken, drained tuna, chopped eggs, shredded cheese, kidney or garbanzo beans, and sunflower seeds. Include a full fat salad dressing, which tastes better and helps with the absorption of antioxidants in the salad veggies.
A few croutons that don't (you guessed it) contain partially hydrogenated oil
Check back this week for tips from Favret on healthy snacks once the kids get home from school.