When I packed my kids’ school lunches, I relied on the tried and true: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; celery, overstuffed with cream cheese; a juice-box (fruit flavored!); and an Oreo cookie, maybe two.
These days, that menu seems positively antiquated (so does the New Kids on the Block lunchbox, but that’s a different story).
Let’s take the sandwich: Some schools today don’t allow peanut butter or nuts of any kind in the lunchroom because so many kids today have nut allergies. Others allow nuts, but ask allergic students to sit at a nut-free table.
I get points for the celery — a vegetable, after all – but lose them for the cream cheese: calorically high, nutritionally low.
The juice box — not “green” by anyone’s stretch of the imagination and probably lined with aluminum and BPA — contained a sweet mix of tinted sugar with negligible amounts of actual juice. And the Oreos, well, a kid’s gotta eat, right?
The answer, it turns out, is yes, but a kid’s gotta eat healthier. Childhood obesity is become one of the country’s top health risks, according to the American Heart Association, which reports that the number of overweight kids and adolescents (ages 6-19) has tripled in the last 40 years.
Deborah Enos, a Seattle-area nutrition expert and health coach, claims all those extra pounds come from too much sugar and too little exercise. “Kids are less active than they were just a few decades ago,” she says. And, she points out, they’re consuming more sodas, desserts and sweetened drinks than ever. “Sugar plays a huge role in childhood obesity,” says Enos, a board member of the American Heart Association.
Childhood obesity can increase a child’s chances of contracting type 2 diabetes, she says. “Many obese kids will be at a higher risk of dying of heart disease and stroke during middle age.”
Can parents get their kids to eat better, more nutritious lunches? Enos thinks so. Recently, we asked Enos to share her ideas about what kids need — and don’t need — for lunch.
Q: What do parents typically pack in their kids’ lunchboxes?
Enos: Most parents pack a sandwich, chips and a cookie. There’s typically no fruit or vegetable — and a slice of lettuce doesn’t qualify. There might be cheese on the sandwich, but that’s really not a lot of nutritional content.
We are giving them food that is calorically high. And the nutritional content doesn’t equal the calories.
Q: How can we make sandwiches more nutritious?
Enos: Using whole wheat is good, and adding meat is good. If you pack peanut butter and jelly, read the jam label. Make sure it’s all-natural jam with no added sugar. And add some slices of a banana to that sandwich.
Q: How do you feel about juice boxes?
Enos: How did we get to the point in America where we think our kids will be denied if we don’t give them five juice boxes a day? These juice boxes have a lot of sugar and very little nutritional value.
Q: How about veggies with spreads?
Enos: There’s a lot of sugar in sauces and spreads. Be careful of that. If you put a dip in the lunchbox, read the label. Teriyaki sauce has tons of sugar. Catsup is 30 percent sugar. Cream cheese has a lot of additives. We’ve trained our kids to think they’ve got to have their dip.
Somehow, we’ve made it really convenient for our kids to eat fruit, but not vegetables. We can slice apples or buy them already sliced, and it’s easy to pack a handful of blueberries. Then we’ll put carrot sticks in the lunchbox and ask ourselves, do I have a container for the ranch dressing? We think they need it. Instead, try packing hummus for the vegetables. Hummus has protein and more nutritional value.
At some point, you have to start giving vegetables to your kids plain. You want them to get used to that. Some adults won’t have salad unless it’s gobbed in dressing. And there really isn’t a good dressing.
Q: What do kids need to eat more of at lunch?
Enos: They need to eat protein at lunch. It fills them up and takes longer to digest. Protein also settles their minds; it creates chemical reactions in their bodies that make them more focused and energetic. And our kids aren’t getting enough of this.
Meat is a good source of protein, along with peanut butter, almond butter, hard-boiled eggs or cheese.
We are giving our children food that is calorically high, and the nutritional content doesn’t equal the calories. With salmon, for example, you’ll get calories, but also calcium and good fat. The nutrition matches the calories.
Q: What do you think about the lunches kids buy at school?
Enos: Most school lunches are very high in calories, but not very satisfying. It’s easy for a kid to have 800 calories at noon and be hungry by 4 p.m. That’s because they are not eating protein or healthy fat.
The sodium content is off the charts and so is the fat content. There’ll be lots of sugar and white flour in these lunches, and they’re almost devoid of vegetables. There might be a little salad covered in ranch dressing. You don’t see a lot of fruits.
Q: What about pizza? Many schools serve it.
Enos: The average piece of school lunch pizza has no meat or low-quality meat, and a ton of cheese. There’s high fat content without a lot of protein to balance it out. Veggie pizza can be OK.
Q: Can what kids eat at lunchtime affect learning?
Enos: What they eat makes a huge difference. Kids who have an animal protein for breakfast generally score better on tests during the school day. And if they have protein at lunch, they are much more settled, calmer, and have better recall.
Kids often don’t get enough sleep, and it’s hard for them to retain their mood and their recall if they don’t have protein in their system. And I think they need animal protein.
Q: What do you like to pack for your kids?
Enos: Whole-grain bread, turkey, veggies, carrots and fruit. That’s incredibly energizing and it will keep their mood level up. I also like sending edamame or rotisserie chicken.
Healthy lunch box suggestions from Deborah Enos:
Peanut Butter Rolls
Flour tortillas (high fiber)
Peanut butter (natural, no hydrogenated fats)
Jelly (low or no sugar)
Spread peanut butter and jelly on tortilla. Sprinkle with raisins. Roll up tortilla.
Turkey Roll with an Attitude
Flour tortilla (high fiber)
3 slices of turkey
1 slice low-fat cheese
Lite mayo or low-fat cream cheese
Baked potato chips or Popchips (Popchips are chips that are low in fat/calories and are popped like popcorn.)
Spread mayo or cream cheese onto flour tortilla. Layer lettuce, tomato wedges, turkey and cheese down the center of the tortilla. Top with chips. Roll and fold the filled tortilla.