Navigating kids’ part-time or online schooling is difficult enough. Add rusty food rhythms to the mix and we scramble, revert to packaged foods, and quickly realize the need for a practical plan. Let’s review lunch basics.
We all need nutrient balance at every meal. A heal-thy lunch starts with five foundational ingredients: 1) protein; 2) healthy fats; 3) fruits and veggies (hello, fiber); 4) color; and, 5) something else your kid loves!
Protein provides the building blocks of cells and should be eaten at every meal. Choose the highest quality protein you can afford including meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans/legumes, eggs and cheese. For omnivores, offer both animal and plant foods.
Healthy fats are essential for cognition and sustain energy. Some of the best brain-supportive fats are also in protein-rich foods including small wild-caught fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, as well as in avocadoes, olives, coconut and their oils.
Choose at least one vegetable plus one fruit in different color combinations to encourage fiber consumption. Fiber is under-eaten globally, is vital for a healthy gut—the other brain. Fiber is also is prevalent in legumes, nuts and seeds.
One favorite childhood memory was “the special something” mom added to my lunchbox. Back then, that meant a Ding Dong, homemade cookie or dried plums from our tree. Remember, a special something does not need to be synonymous with “treat.” Sometimes kids are pumped with something just different, like a small bottle of kefir, an oatmeal bar or cheddar bunnies. Also, it doesn’t have to be a daily special—it’s more memorable when offered sometimes.
The most special something was the love notes my mom included (ahem, when I got into trouble). With all the back-to-school challenges of COVID—and both parents and kids experiencing unusual trepidation—lunch love notes might be the perfect way to connect with your child during the school day.
Around age seven, a child’s brain is developing logic, making early grades ideal to help your child think critically. Offering choices (with boundaries!) is a great way to help expand kids’ mental capacity and doing so with meals inspires food curiosity—a life skill that also reduces pickiness.
Please be conscious of the choices you offer—don’t let kids choose anything for lunch. Instead, teach the five basics of a balanced lunch box and offer clear choices. For example, with veggies ask, “Would you like carrot sticks or peas tomorrow?” With protein, “Sandwich or omelet?”
If certain items are continually uneaten, curiously ask your child why. It could be a loose tooth, lack of time, or current dislike for that food or its preparation. Then, adjust that item, keeping mind protein, fats, fiber, color and fun. Sometimes it helps to display a few parent-approved items for your child to view and choose—kids are very visual!
Work alongside older kids to create their own, parent-approved balanced lunches.
Create a weekly lunch template. For example, sandwiches on Mondays, hard-boiled eggs on Tuesdays, leftovers on Wednesdays, burritos on Thursdays, salad wraps on Fridays, etc. Then, build these lunches with variety (so kids don’t get bored) and expectation (to make life easier).
Even kids learning virtually can construct their own lunches. Plan simple foods that even young kids can make—autonomy and empowerment are life skills we can teach through food.
Jamie Truppi, MSN, is an integrative nutritionist focusing on functional foods and family wellness.