Healthy School Lunches Made Simple
By Dr. Alicia Walters
When I talk with my patients about childhood obesity I often hear parents say that they simply don’t have time to prepare healthy meals for their children. And they certainly don’t have time to pack them a lunch for school.
I understand. My husband and I have an 18-month-old daughter and we both work. I know about time pressures and stress. But teaching children to make healthy choices about what they eat is one of the most important things we can do as parents to help them lead healthy lives. Those choices can be as simple as the difference between a lunch of pizza, soda and fries and a PB&J, carrot sticks and yogurt.
Consider the facts. According to the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, almost one third of children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese. The weight patterns in North Carolina are similar to national trends. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 21 percent of preschool aged children are overweight or obese, 35 percent of school-aged children and 34 percent of adolescents. I estimate that more than 60 percent of children in my family-care practice at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center are overweight. Their parents often tell me that their weight prevents them from keeping up with the other kids on the playground. But they don’t know what to do.
Obesity also puts children at risk for a host of serious illnesses. I treat children for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which before the obesity epidemic were adult diseases. Excess weight also puts children at risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, bone fractures and other health problems as they age.
I worry just as much about emotional toll of obesity as I do about the medical risks. My patients struggle emotionally because they can’t play sports or they feel ugly. Some become class clowns; others face ridicule. And I treat many teenage patients for depression that results from their heavy weight.
We can’t change our fast-food, sedentary culture all at once, although I’m glad to see some of the reform efforts aimed at making school lunches healthier. But we can take a little extra time every night to pack a healthy lunch for our kids.
I’m a planner, so my first tip for families is plan ahead. Stock your pantry every week with:
- whole grain bread or crackers
- apple sauce
- light mayonnaise
- trail mix
- baked chips
- whole grain cereal
- peanut butter
- one bag of cookies for a treat
- carrots and celery
- low-fat turkey or lean roast beef
- whole grain wraps
At the beginning of the week
- make some hard-boiled eggs for egg salad
- mix up a bowl of tuna salad
- cut up a week’s supply of carrot and celery sticks
Leftovers from dinner often make a great lunch.
- Invest in some small containers for holding dips and dressings.
- Buy each child in the family a small, insulated container.
And now you’re ready. Children need protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables and a snack every day. Young children like food in small portions. Think about peanut butter and jelly crackers, cubes of cheese, and apple slices sprinkled with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown.
Older children prefer a sandwich or a wrap. Try turkey and lettuce in a wrap or egg-salad on whole grain bread. Add a small bag of nuts, a bag of grapes or some celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter. Or pack a bag of carrot sticks and fill a small container with peanut butter for a dip. Student athletes need a high-energy snack after school and before practice. Try a trail mix or another sandwich. Pack one to two cookies for a treat. That’s a lot less sugar than a candy bar or a can of soda.
I know it’s hard for children to resist the soda machines still allowed in many schools and the pizza, corn dogs and chicken nuggets served in so many of our school cafeterias. Studies show that a healthy lunch also improves school performance. Children who eat a high sugar, high starch lunch often crash an hour later when that sugar rush ends. But children who eat a balanced lunch, with plenty of protein, fruits and vegetables, feel better and stay focused the rest of the day.
I pack my husband a lunch every night before I go to bed. He’s a creature of habit, so it’s always the same: a turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese and mustard, a bag of baked chips, two cookies and a bottle of water. And when my daughter starts school, I’ll do the same for her. Yes it’s tedious. Yes, there are things I’d rather be doing at the end of a long day. But I know their health depends on it.
Dr. Alicia Walters is a clinical instructor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.