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How to pack your child’s lunchbox with healthy fuel

School lunches don’t have the best reputation. Even with the recent nutrition-standards overhaul, the perception that school lunches just aren’t healthy persists. So, in an effort to make sure their kids eat healthy, many parents send a home-packed lunch. In fact, about 41 percent of elementary students bring lunch on any given day. But is a lunch from home really healthier? Most parents will say yes, but recent research suggests otherwise!

A study published this month by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at the foods brought from home for lunch and snacks, and ranked them by how closely they followed the federal guidelines for school lunches, which are modeled after the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. What the researchers found was surprising; only 27 percent of the packed lunches met at least three of the five following standards:

  • ½ cup of fruit (not including fruit juice)
  • ¾ cup vegetables (excludes vegetable juice and vegetables carried in another item, such as lettuce on a sandwich)
  • 1 oz. grains from bread, cereal, rice, pasta, or granola (excludes snack foods and desserts)
  • 1 oz. meat/meat alternative
  • 1 cup fluid milk

Here is a breakdown of the findings:

  • 59% contained a sandwich
  • 34% contained a fruit
  • 28% contained a dessert
  • 17% included leftovers
  • 17% contained dairy foods
  • 11% contained a vegetable
  • Water was the most common beverage (28%)
  • 24% included a sugar-sweetened beverage

It is well documented that kids in the U.S. do not consume adequate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or low-fat dairy, so these findings are concerning. And while it is promising the most common beverage was water, sugar-sweetened beverages were a close second.

The authors of the study noted some limitations. For instance, the study measured only food brought, not food consumed. However, these findings do echo research done in the U.K. and Australia. The study is the first of its kind in the U.S., so more are sure to follow.

So what exactly does a healthy school lunch look like? Take a look back at the standards above and remember them. Try to include at least three of them in each lunch — more if you can. Here are some examples of healthy lunchbox meals your kids will love:

Egg salad bento box – Bento boxes are all the rage now, and this one is simple!

Chickpea cilantro dip with grilled pita and carrot sticks – Just add fruit and low-fat yogurt!

Whole-wheat PB&J – Use a whole-wheat bagel, 1 tbsp. peanut butter (without hydrogenated oil!) and 2 tsp. jelly. Add a banana and carrot/celery sticks, sliced red peppers, or raw snow peas — and you’re done! If your school is peanut-free, try using sunflower seed butter or soynut butter instead.

Couscous salad – Get whole wheat couscous if you can and combine with 2 tbsp. hummus, 8 whole-wheat pita chips, and grapes.

Soy-lime tofu and rice bento box – A whole meal of finger food makes kids want to dive in!

Make-your-own tacos – Pack each ingredient separately and let your child assemble! Use whole-wheat wraps, ground turkey instead of beef for less saturated fat, and part-skim mozzarella cheese. Add lots of veggies like shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, sliced olives, and salsa! Forgo sour cream, or add just a dollop of plain fat free Greek yogurt — it tastes just like sour cream, but is much healthier. Add an apple to round out the meal.

Remember, it’s okay to have a treat now and then. But kids, even more than adults, need lots of nutritious food most of the time to keep growing and functioning normally!

What is your child’s favorite healthy lunch to take to school?