FEATURE | Posted Aug. 28, 2013

Packing the perfect school lunch

For the best nutrition, prepare your kids’ mid-day meals at home

Mother makes sure child has healthy lunch for school
Home-packed school lunches can be healthier and less expensive than the food available at school.

Should you pack a lunch for your child to take to school, or should your child purchase lunch at the school’s cafeteria?

The latter option may seem simpler but likely will not benefit your child as much as a nutritious, home-packed school lunch, according to UC Davis registered dietitian Glee Van Loon. She recommends home-packed school lunches because — in addition to sending a strong message of love and caring — they generally are less expensive and healthier than school cafeteria food. Healthy habits early in life can also have long-term benefits.

“Preparing lunch at home ensures that your child eats food with the nutrients that are crucial to growing normally and thriving, mentally as well as physically,” said Van Loon, who manages nutrition services for the UC Davis Chronic Disease Care, Management and Education Program. “It also instills food preferences that can help them avoid conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes throughout their lives.”

She and her colleagues Marie Barone and Melinda Gong have developed a number recommendations to help parents who want to provide healthy lunches for their kids to enjoy away from home.

Learn more about the Chronic Disease Care, Management and Education Program

The Chronic Disease Care, Management and Education Program at UC Davis provides information and counseling for dealing with the daily challenges of conditions like heart disease, vascular disease and diabetes. For information, visit the program's website.

Variety is key

Your child’s lunch should contain a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and heart-healthy fat. Examples of foods that are rich in these nutrients and ideal for a home-packed school lunch include:

  • Two to three ounces of lean protein for muscle and tissue development and metabolism. Chicken, turkey or tuna fish on a whole grain mini-bagel, one-half cup of chickpeas or a hardboiled egg will provide the lean protein that your child needs at lunch.
  • Heart-healthy oils for heart and brain health such as two tablespoons of natural peanut butter on several whole grain crackers.
  • Fiber and micronutrients, which can be provided by fruits such as grapes, mandarin oranges, pears and berries; one-half cup of vegetables such as broccoli “trees” or grape tomatoes; and whole grains, which include whole grain bread, bagels, pasta, quinoa and brown rice.
  • Calcium-rich food for bone development such as one ounce of low-fat cheese or six to eight ounces of low fat milk or low fat yogurt.

A home-packed lunch also should include water because “proper hydration is important to health,” said Van Loon. “And water is a much better beverage choice than sodas or fruit drinks.”

“Preparing lunch at home ensures that your child eats food with the nutrients that are crucial to growing normally and thriving, mentally as well as physically. It also instills food preferences that can help them avoid conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes throughout their lives.”
— Glee Van Loon

Healthy eating for healthy grades

What your child eats at lunch as well as breakfast and dinner can influence his or her ability to earn As and Bs, according to recent research.

“Studies have shown that unhealthy children are more than twice as likely than healthy youngsters to receive the worst grades at school, and this effect is independent of socio-economic factors,” said Van Loon. “These children are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college.”

UC Davis registered dieticians offer advice for healthy meals © UC Regents
UC Davis dietitian Glee Van Loon (left) provides education on healthy eating options for patients and their families.

When children have regular, nutritious meals, they are not hungry and thus are able to pay attention in class and focus on their assignments and homework, she added. “They also don’t struggle with having low energy and headaches.”

By preparing your child’s school lunch, you also can control portion sizes. “The size of food portions should be based on the age, weight and activity level of the child,” said Van Loon.

Reducing obesity

Children who consume more calories than they need can become overweight or obese. Obesity is much more than a social issue. It’s a serious medical problem that increases your child’s risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

In addition to controlling portion sizes, a home-packed lunch should be free of processed foods, including bologna, potato chips and snack cakes, because they are high in unhealthy fats, sodium and calories while being low in fiber and overall nutrients.

“Lunch is a year-round activity, so test different foods and ideas during times when school is out so that the transition to eating away from home is fun, interesting and painless,” said Van Loon.

“Teaching a child to be a good eater and appreciate healthful foods start with the parents as role models,” she added. “Kids learn from watching how their parents eat, what their parents choose to eat and how much they eat.”

Top reasons to pack a lunch

Top reasons why you should pack your child's school lunch at home:

  1. Control portion size
  2. Maximize nutrition
  3. Teach healthy habits that last a lifetime
  4. Improve your child’s “food IQ” in addition to his/her grades
  5. Reduce costs
  6. Help him/her maintain a healthy weight

Nutrition tips

Tips for preparing a nutritious school lunch that your child will want to eat:

  1. Be colorful! A variety of color (orange carrots, green broccoli and red grapes, for example) and textures appeals to kids.
  2. Include finger foods if your child loves to eat with his or her hands. (Remind your child to wash his or her hands before eating.)
  3. Peel and slice the fruit and avoid using fruits with seeds.
  4. Pack healthy foods the child enjoys as well as new foods.
  5. Disguise vegetables in a soup or stew if your child is anti-veggie.

Saving time and money

Tips for reducing the time and cost of preparing home-packed school lunches:

  1. Purchase full size bags of vegetables, divide them into daily portions and package each portion in a snack bag before the school week begins.
  2. Select seasonal fruits, vegetables as well as proteins that are on sale and readily available. Each day package a different combination of these foods.