- Average school packed lunches score poorly in nutritional value, particularly in areas such as vegetables, whole grains, and plant proteins.
- Improving lunch healthiness can be achieved by gradually altering dietary choices like opting for 100% whole wheat instead of white bread, replacing pre-packaged deli meats with fresh options, and replacing nutrient-empty foods like chips with healthier alternatives such as nuts.
- Using reusable containers and prepping meals in advance can reduce costs in the long run and encourages consumption of healthier foods.
- Engaging children in meal planning and preparation can lead to them being more likely to consume their packed lunch.
Packing lunches for yourself or your children allows you to have control over the food consumed. However, many recent studies indicate that these meals need a massive boost in terms of healthfulness, especially considering the nutritional habits children develop during their formative preschool years.
These studies assessed preschooler lunches based on the Healthy Eating Index, a tool used to measure adherence to nourishment guidelines. The outcome? There is considerable scope for nutritional enhancement.
Actual Nutritional Score of Packed Lunch
Out of a total of 100 points, the average lunch only scored a disappointing 52, based on the actual foods children ate (the score was slightly higher, at 58, when assessing lunches based on initial healthiness). The lowest scoring categories were vegetables, particularly leafy greens, seafood, wholegrains, and plant proteins. On a brighter note, foods high in protein and fruits were well-represented. Unfortunately, nutrient-empty foods topped the list.
Methods to Elevate Lunch Healthiness
The question then is, how can we improve this?
One strategy is to gradually make diet alterations, allowing taste buds to adapt to healthier options. For instance, instead of white bread or rolls, opt for 100 percent whole wheat. Better yet, consider wraps, as both you and your kids might find them more fun to eat, and it’s easier to include vegetables in place of processed cheese.
Fresh Over Processed Foods
Moreover, consider replacing pre-packaged deli meats with fresh options like chicken breast or turkey. Imagine roasting them on Sundays and using slices for the week’s lunches. For a twist, you might want to try creamy mashed avocado in place of mayo. Using pre-cut and washed veggies can save time, but if finances are a concern, you can wash and cut them in advance. One highly beneficial swap would be to replace a bag of chips with a handful of nuts, provided there are no allergies.
Other practical steps include having stocks of reusable containers and a thermos, ideal for packing soups and stews, and easy to prepare in advance. These strategies usage will reduce costs in the long run, as opposed to buying single-serve snack packs and other such items.
Involve Kids in Meal Planning
Engaging kids in menu planning and prep is another smart move. They are more likely to consume what they’ve had a hand in making and packing.
The U.S. National Institute of Health’s “We Can!” program offers numerous ideas for healthy school lunches that children will love.