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In the ideal world every single educational environment would come with an onsite kitchen, overseen by a nutritionist, with foods made entirely from scratch from whole and fresh foods, especially fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Children with dietary restrictions or allergies would be accommodated. And parents would have full transparency to food sources and recipe ingredients.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world where horse meat is “accidently” sold as beef. Where fish comes from polluted waters. Where food labels are indecipherable and where we have no idea what types of oils or preservatives are being used in the foods that our children are consuming outside of our homes. And yet, a string of studies connects good school performance and attentiveness to healthy nutrition. It is therefore imperative to ensure that we insist on high nutrition standards in schools.

While school cafeteria menus are improving every day, in general school foods are still lacking the nutritional quality that growing children deserve. Many parents opt to pack their own school lunches and be in control over what their child eats during the day. If you are new to packing nutritionally balanced meals, it takes a little planning, and perhaps some inspiration. But with a bit of effort your packed homemade lunches with fresh healthy foods will benefit your child’s well being and set an example for lifelong healthy eating habits.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Weekly Menus

Children are comforted by routines, schedules and information. Creating a weekly packed lunch menu will not only help you feel more organized, but it will create an opportunity for your child to be involved in the selection process. Find out what they like to eat. Take them shopping. Perhaps suggest one or two new things to be added to their lunch menu on a weekly basis. Repetition is good, but variety and exposure will help to broaden their palate and make the packed lunch experience more fun and educational. This is also be a great life lesson for them regarding healthy meal planning.

Nutritional Balance, Variety and Portion Sizes

Good, healthy lunches don’t need to be complicated. However, insist on creating packed lunches that represent good nutritional balance and variety. It’s really simple – every day send a bit of protein, dairy, fruit, vegetable, grain and a little treat. Be conscious of ensuring that proteins are well represented, as they will make your child feel more satiated. Kids they need energy to get them through a long school day. Send appropriate portions for the age and gender of your child.

The Choose My Plate website  is a helpful resource with user-friendly charts indicating daily recommended portions of each food group that children should be consuming. If you overpack, you are teaching your child to overeat and also, most likely, to waste food.

Chicken Nugget.CR2-01Making Lunches Easy for Kids to Eat

If your kids are anything like mine, some of those packed lunches will come back home uneaten. Children are distracted at school. They spend their lunchtime socializing and very rarely focus on the food in front of them. Our advice is to invest in an appropriate lunch container. Ideally you should look for one that is tray like, where your child can see all the foods in front of them at once. Food in baggies and multiple containers are often forgotten or pushed aside. Good foods aren’t being consumed, just wasted. If your children are young, cut their foods into bite sized pieces. Small portions are less intimidating and can also make it easier to introduce new healthy foods.

Children Love Repetition, But They Also Love Games

Keep packing your child’s favorite foods daily but add a new fruit, vegetable or cheese in the mix as often as possible. Even the pickiest eaters get bored of the same old thing day after day. If your child likes mild flavored cheese like mozzarella, incorporate ricotta one day or smoked mozzarella. See what they think. Or introduce a game. Perhaps for each new tried food they get a sticker. Or they have to guess what color was missing in their lunch. Perhaps create a weekly lunch menu and add a little surprise item each day. Let them tell you what has been added. Games will get kids more engaged with their meal and they will look forward to new food surprises! (and those don’t necessarily need to be a treat).

Keep It Seasonal

Nothing tastes better than a seasonal fruit or vegetable. Your picky eater will be more likely to have a positive experience trying a new food if it is tasty. A juicy and fragrant in-season strawberry or ripe tomato, will be more likely to win your child over, than a tasteless greenhouse fruit that you have purchased at the supermarket off-season. Plus, it’s better for your family’s budget!

Take a New Approach

Encourage kids to challenge their taste buds with an iPhone/iPad app that also teaches kids about seasonality such as Kids Food Adventure. Have a picky eater? Try making a game out of exploring new foods with a second app we developed called Choose My Food  and customize your child’s journey to a healthy diet.

School Lunches

Now let’s go back to that ideal world where all children would be fed amazingly nutritious lunches at school. It’s actually possible. In many countries, especially France and Japan, school lunches are overseen and created by teams of nutritionists and chefs. And great awareness is devoted to using the lunch experience as part of child’s education.

If you would like to find out more how to improve the school lunch nutrition, the Lunch Tray blog is a good source. Things do take time to improve, but without trying nothing will.

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About the Author:

Maia Neumann is a co-founder of Yumbox. Her vision is to simplify the approach to healthy child nutrition by designing products that make healthy eating fun and easy. For more information please visit YumboxLunch.com.

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About the Author

Dr. Katalenas

Dr. Katalenas is a pediatrician and owner of The Pediatric Center of Round Rock and the author of the book "The Step Up Diet: From Scratch… The Quality, Quantity, and Timing Solution to Childhood Obesity", a guide to healthy cooking and eating for busy families.