Surprisingly, the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found children's lunches brought from home are likely to be higher in calories, fat and sugar than lunches provided by schools. As a registered dietician, I think this is due to lack of parental nutritional education. Next time you pack your child's school lunch, avoid these common mistakes most parents make:
1. Packing too much food
You're a parent; you worry. What if Johnny doesn't like what I pack? What if he is very hungry today? To ease your worries, you pack a sandwich, three snacks, two pieces of fruit, a drink and a small sweet (just in case he needs a little more). Most likely, an empty lunchbox will return home regardless of what you pack. Think about how kids eat on the weekend to ensure you include just the right amount of food for school.
2. Choosing foods meant "for kids"
It's sold "for kids," so they must need it, right? Not always. Just because something is marketed as a best choice for your child's lunch doesn't mean it has healthy levels of sugar, salt or other ingredients. The best way to assess whether something is a good choice for your child is to review the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list. You can also try these "10 Healthy, Kid-Friendly Finger Foods."
3. Providing too little protein
It's easy to pack a variety of snacks, but what about protein-based snacks? If the only protein in the lunch box is in a sandwich while every other option is a carbohydrate, then the result may be an imbalanced meal that leaves your child feeling hungry soon after all those carbs are digested. Sneak in snacks like granola bars and yogurt tubes with 5 to 7 grams of protein for a better balance.
4. Forgetting to mimic the way your child eats at home
When packing a school lunch it's easy to focus on the food and lose sight of the child who will be eating it. Are you making a sandwich despite your child's preference to graze? Are you packing milk rather than a juice box because it's what you want your child to have at lunch even though they rarely finish a glass of milk at home in one sitting? Remember, food is not nourishment unless it's consumed, so be sure to pack the foods you know your child will eat.
5. Filling up on fruit but not veggies
It's easy to remember to include fruit, pouches and other fruit snacks in a lunch box. But what about vegetables? The snack world may not offer much when it comes to vegetables, but that doesn't mean that vegetables aren't good add-ons to your child's lunch and the perfect way to help your kids meet their daily vegetable goal. Parenting's "Veggie Wrap" recipe is sure to please!
6. Planning ahead
Did you pack pasta but also plan to make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner? A big mistake that parents make when packing lunch is not having a plan for dinner. It's important to pack a lunch that fits with a balanced, daily meal plan for your child.
7. Engaging your little eater
You pack a cheese sandwich on white, whole grain bread with apples and natural popcorn. Healthy? Yes. Inviting? No. Just like you, your kids eat with their eyes first. Provide them with a lunch that is colorful, inviting and full of variety.
Allison Stowell is a consulting dietician for The Guiding Stars Licensing Co. in Scarborough, Maine.