The Cleveland Clinic recently issued tips for parents on what to pack for school lunches. The recommendations include things like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
But what about chips, cookies and other treats kids might prefer?
According to Jen Hyland, a pediatric registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children's, it's OK to include those snacks in school lunches. As a matter of fact, striking a balance between what's considered nutritious with less nutritious foods can be healthy.
"Meals don't have to be perfect," she said. "We want to do as low pressure as possible, especially for parents. There's a lot going on. It's what your kids eat over the course of the day, the week, the month.
"So if you're offering balanced meals with various nutrients regularly and they have a meal where they're just only in the mood to eat mac and cheese or pizza, and you might offer the other things, but that's all they eat, that's normal and that's gonna happen. Putting some fun foods in their lunch, giving them a sweet treat from time to time, or maybe sometimes the school orders in pizza or something, that's all gonna be OK."
Why kids might be hungry
One issue Hyland sees is that kids are eating a lot of food, but the food they're eating is not keeping them full throughout the day. She said students will often eat meals high in carbohydrates, which won't keep them full for as long, causing children to eat more when they get home.
"They pack chips and cookies and a granola bar and fruit snacks; those are all from that same food group that we call carbohydrates," she said. "And what happens is they break down the sugar in the kid's body and that's supposed to happen. But if you don't have other nutrients in there to kind of buffer that, it's gonna lead to a blood sugar spike, their blood sugar is going to drop and then that can lead to trouble focusing in school."
She said for this reason, she is not a big stickler on making kids eat breakfast as they can often have a lot of sugar, which provides little benefit.
"You're getting that same blood sugar spike drop and then they're going to be hungry again," she said. "So it's really important to pair all meals with protein and pair all meals with fiber. So fruits, vegetables and whole grains."
Hyland also said sugary drinks, including many juices, can also contribute to children gaining weight. She suggests children stick to drinks like water, flavored water, low-sugar juices or milk.
Should students pack lunch or eat school lunches?
Of course the easiest, and oftentimes most cost-effective, option is to utilize school lunches. According to government data, more than half of kids in 2019-20 qualified for a free or reduced-cost lunch.
These meals are required to meet certain guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hyland suggests that if kids qualify for these lunches, they should take advantage of them. But every child has different dietary needs, so she said it might be a good idea to pack additional food if kids are complaining that school lunches aren't keeping them full.
Over the course of five days, school-provided lunches for K-5 students are required to have 8-9 ounces of grains and 8-10 ounces of meat or meat alternatives. School lunches for students in grades 6-8 must contain 8-10 ounces of grains and 9–10 ounces of meat or meat alternatives a week. School lunches for K-8 students are also required to include 2.5 ounces of fruit and 3.75 ounces of vegetables in a week.
"School lunches, I mean, they do get a bad rep and they're not always the best but they are OK and they are nutritious and especially children who get free or reduced lunch, I would never tell them not to utilize that service," Hyland said. "If the kids say they don't like any of the fruit or veggie offerings, could we maybe set in like a baggie of carrots if that's a safe veggie that they'll eat? And how do we complement that school lunch?"
Balancing obesity and eating disorder concerns
It can seem like a challenge to make sure kids get proper nutrition while making sure they don't eat too much and become obese, or become too concerned about their diet to develop an eating disorder. That's why Hyland stresses food neutrality with children and parents.
"We also really want to keep food neutrality in mind so not teaching kids that like your lunch is only healthy if it has this or your friend has this and that's bad," she said. "And that's hard because kids are gonna talk at school and they hear things from their parents, but it's really important to try to just present it as like, hey, these are different nutrients. This is nourishing your body."
She said that's why parents can do different things to make their children's meals more fun.
"In my experience, a lot of kids are sandwich kids, but vary things up," Hyland said. "It doesn't have to be just like a turkey and cheese sandwich. You can cut it into like a fun pinwheel, you can do it on crackers one day. A lot of the kids I really find like doing like a big kid lunch, a bowl. So kind of like a bento box type deal where you can put in your grain as your crackers, your protein, your cheese, you throw your veggie in there, a little snack, something like that."
Hyland recommends learning what your kids like to offer the best possible meal for their needs.
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