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School Lunches: To Pack, or Not To Pack?

How can we be sure our kids eat healthy while at school?

Laurie Hunt
My kids think it is pretty cool to buy school lunch. My oldest declared this year she wanted to buy every day, I think this is because for three years she went to a school without a cafeteria and it was a novelty. I decided not to fight it and I let her do it. Guess what? The novelty wore off, as I expected it would, and we are back to bringing lunch.  The hard thing is at her last school I could pack peanut butter, nuts – they could even trade with their friends!  There is none of that in public school. 

My youngest daughter is tough when it comes to eating during the day; she is on medication and an unfortunate side effect is it suppresses her appetite. While it is getting better her weight has been a constant source of concern so on days I know the cafeteria is serving something she will eat I am happy to let her buy lunch. She loves the breakfast for lunch option and she eats it so I am happy with that.

As far as the quality of school lunches and how healthy I consider them? I am not overly impressed. I am not sure why nachos are considered a good option for lunch and was surprised to learn my middle-schooler has access to ice cream and iced tea on a daily basis.  

The good thing is I have better control over what my girls eat for breakfast, after school snack and dinner so I can balance things out. I realize most of you reading this may not be able to relate to this but it bears mentioning that for some children their school lunch is often the best, and sometimes the only, meal they get in a day. It makes me very sad for these children that the food is not better. 

Holly DeSouza
I remember school lunches when I was growing up being disgusting.  There were a few days out of the year that were somewhat edible including when, in my junior year, Taco Bell was every other Friday for the non-Catholics. Or something like that – time has not been kind to my memory. I do clearly remember yellow wax beans, hockey pucks that somewhat resembled hamburgers, and salads with one little ice-cream-scoop-shaped mound of tuna fish. 

Sounds delicious, right? Yet at the time I was convinced it was not cool to bring your lunch to school. I would not actually eat much due to the simple fact not much was edible, yet there was a social stigma associated with bringing a lunch from home. 

Despite the First Lady’s mission to encourage healthy eating and the local government’s mission to toe the line, I can’t imagine school lunches look any more edible than they did twenty plus years ago. My daughter has had a history of food challenges (please refer to my column on ). Because of my personal mission to make sure she was eating as many natural and healthy foods as possible, I make most of what Lexi eats from scratch. There are obvious exceptions (cereals and Oreos, for example, as my cookies cannot compete with Oreos) but for the most part we do not consume many processed foods in our home. Lexi has grown accustomed to eating fresh and homemade. When the time comes, I am not sure she will ever eat what is provided in the cafeteria. Cafeteria food may have come a long way due to the focus from the administration, and it is certainly the most convenient option, however I am going to try and stay the course.  I won’t pretend it won’t be the perfect choice when I am strapped for time and can’t spend a few hours making bread or even a few seconds throwing a granola bar in a lunch box some day.  But that said, as a general rule I am going to try to continue to make her lunches from home and guide her towards making healthy and edible choices. Her preschool has not had a cafeteria these past few years and making lunches from home the only option. If I can find the time to do this while working and raising a small child, my hope is time will only be kinder.

Until then, I applaud Michelle Obama’s push to encourage healthy eating and exercise in family.  I hope the schools really take it seriously before Lexi is in high school. 

Tasha Schlake Festel
School started about a month ago and I’m already sick of packing lunches. As if that weren’t enough, I have to pack snacks too. And healthy ones to boot. What a total pain in the arse! It would be so much easier to just send in the $2.50 every day for a nutritious lunch from the cafeteria so I didn’t have to waste six whole minutes of my day packing something.

I’ve taken a few hopeful looks at the school lunch calendar only to be sorely disappointed. Yup, you guessed it. School lunches are crap. In what world does a healthy lunch include French Toast with Syrup or Cold Cereal? Or perhaps Mozzarella Stix with Marinara Sauce and a side of Cinnamon Applesauce? Or maybe the Petite Chicken Slider on a Roll with Juice? Sure, each comes with a “vegetable” but let’s be honest, did you ever eat the mushy school cafeteria veggies when you got them on your plastic compartmentalized tray? Yeah, I didn’t think so. And by the way, $2.50 for that garbage? Yikes! Since I don’t see school lunches as a viable option, I am sentenced to pack lunches 5 evenings a week.

I recently gave up grains and most processed sugar and cannot believe the impact it has had on my body and health. I don’t have “old lady” joints anymore. I’m not creaky and stiff when I wake in the morning. I have nearly boundless energy and striking emotional stability. I am no longer a tired, sore, crazy, moody woman prone to fits of yelling, crying and other unpredictability. I don’t feel like taking a nap at 10 a.m.. I am strong, healthy and psyched that I finally listened to my husband and made the switch.

I want my kids to feel as fabulous as I do, so I have been slowly removing grains and processed sugars from their diets. We try to “eat the perimeter” of the grocery store. The interior aisles are pretty much filled with processed garbage. If it comes from a box, we pass. We eat meat, veggies, fruit, eggs, cheese and dairy. Our diets no longer include Goldfish crackers, Pirate Booty, PopTarts or 100-Calorie-Packs of Crap.

While this will help their bodies and their minds, it seriously complicates lunches and snacks. For snacks, I can no longer just throw in a GoGurt and bag of chips and call it a day. I can’t whip up a batch of Annie’s mac-n-cheese (not even if it is organic pasta), toss it in a thermos, pop in a bag of Oreo crisps and wipe my hands of lunch. I have to think about what I’m giving them and make sure it will keep them healthy, not just fill their bellies.

Snacks include fresh fruit, low-sugar yogurt, all-natural fruit leather, applesauce with no sugar added, whole milk, string cheese, veggies and ranch dip (made with full fat sour cream) or apple slices with sunflower butter. If nuts wouldn’t bring out the haz-mat suits, I would pack trail mix filled with dried berries and nutty goodness.

Lunch for my 2nd grader rarely includes grains or sugar. I often pack leftover dinner in a thermos. (I am a baker, not a chef, so doing much more than heating up left-overs from the dinner my husband cooked the night before is a major undertaking for me.) I pack “applewiches” instead of sandwiches (apple slice, sunflower butter, cheddar cheese slice, more sunflower butter, and another apple slice). I pack cheese and sausage with fruit. I do not include chips, cookies, fruit snacks or any of the other usual suspects.

It’s a pain in the butt to eat right. But I’ve found through personal experience that it’s even more painful to eat poorly. I know that my idea –  the right idea – of what is healthy is not the widely held belief. We are encouraged to pack “healthy foods” and I do. Full-fat cheese, whole milk, salami, hard-boiled eggs, Ranch dip and vegetables, no-sugar-added apple sauce, whole-milk yogurt and cottage cheese ARE healthy. And much more so than anything that comes in a bag.

To read a little about the argument that high-fat, high-protein, low-carb is a healthy diet, check out this New York Times article.

And to discover that it really is right for you, try it for a few weeks. You won’t realize how lousy you feel right now until you cut the carbs and sugar and feel 1,000 times better.

Rethink healthy.

Regina Martine
I love food and I love to cook but I really loathe packing school lunches. Each child has very different likes and dislikes, and making lunch each morning in my undercaffinated state always seems a little daunting. My kids will only buy pizza in the school cafeteria, which is actually fine with me. I would rather know what they are eating. I worked in a deli all through college and learned far too much about how cold cuts are made, so that limits our lunch options as well. None of my kids eat red meat, so that eliminates most cafeteria offerings, they are all a little wary of the “parts is parts” kind of chicken products and one is a full-fledged vegetarian. Sigh.

I know, I know …  it’s my own fault. I have ruined them with my Whole Foodie –cook everything from scratch – “do you know what hot dogs are really made of “ rantings, but here we are. For my kids, lunches are usually a mishmash of healthy snacks. Cheese and crackers, yogurt, sliced apples or oranges, granola bars, or sliced turkey. Vegetarian lunches are a little trickier. Luckily, my daughter enjoys seeing her friends’ reactions when she brings unusual foods to school. She likes to bring tomato or olive tapenade sandwiches, or quinoa salad or a thermos of miso soup. Isn’t that what you brought to school when you were ten?  She also loves trying to convert her friends to vegetarianism by telling them what their bologna or salami sandwiches are really made of. 

I would love to send trail mix or almond butter or granola bars that have nuts (and protein!) but Wakefield schools have a very strict “no nuts” policy. This drives me a little crazy. I can almost understand “no peanut butter” because it gets on the tables and on kids hands, but no nuts at all? Don’t kids with allergies need to understand what they can and can’t eat? There are kids in the schools who are allergic to dairy and wheat and no one is restricting those items. 

When I was in second grade, one of the teachers in my school brought in peanut butter chews—a treat made from peanut butter, sugar, corn syrup (!!) and corn flakes. They were so popular with the students that the cafeteria put them on the school lunch menu.  Not that this would be considered a healthy snack, but the fact that we have gone from teachers bringing homemade, peanut-laden treats into school, to now, where teachers can’t give students any food for fear of triggering an allergic reaction. It is a little extreme. My son participated in a “travel the world” project in preschool where the teacher brought in different foods for the kids to try, but in public school, the rules are so strict that I had to sign a permission slip to allow my ten-year-old daughter to perform a science experiment where she would observe a piece of candy. I think these restrictions send a strange message about food and personal responsibility. Kids need to learn how to have a healthy diet and a healthy relationship with food at home, at school and into their future.

Some lunchbox (and dinnertime) inspiration:

One of my favorite bloggers, Catherine Newman, writes about preparing healthy, natural, food for your family—including a lot of great lunchbox ideas. She includes recipes in her blog and links to Dalai Mama Dishes—which has tons of great recipe ideas too. Check it out!

Tasha Schlake Festel September 28, 2011 at 10:54 PM
Seriously? This is the picture you chose??? Argh! If someone had told me there were going to be pictures taken at our last meeting, I wouldn't have come straight from a run!
Jillian Sallee September 28, 2011 at 11:25 PM
I personally live the picture, of you especially :) I pack my son's lunch every day. He has a certain sensitivity to food dye and preservatives and the school lunches are full of that stuff so I make sure his lunch is full of healthy things he can eat. I can't imagine there being a time when any of my kids buy lunch, unless the options improve tremendously! It's a pain but my husband and I share it so it's not so bad.
Diane Lee September 29, 2011 at 04:51 PM
I pack my kids lunches everyday. My kids really don't have a desire to buy lunch, the lines tend to be long (atleast at the Greenwood) so there isn't much time to eat if they have to buy them. The night before I talk with my kids to see what they want for lunch, so if they picked it I know they will eat it. On the days I don't work my kids sometimes help out with getting their lunch and snack ready for the day. My husband and I both voluteer at the Greenwood School for lunch duty and we are amazied how much food the kids throw away not only the bought lunches, but the lunches they bring from home. I've asked kids why they are not eating their homemade lunch and they say I don't like what my mom packed or some parents pack there kids lunches like they are going an a week trip into the wilderness. I don't find it an issue making lunches I just find it another responsiblity of being a parent.

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