A Great School Lunch


We all know that the middle meal of the day is important. In my mother’s family it was the most important meal of the day, called dinner not lunch, a common practice among midwestern farmers. Supper was the evening meal. We all want to make sure that our children have a healthy lunch. Here are some ideas to make it easier to figure out how to do that.

Make a list over the weekend of five school lunches for the upcoming week. You won’t have to think about it in the mornings then. Use some of the suggestions below.

Create or buy a reusable lunch container, lunch kit, or bento box set and a good, small size thermos. It will cost you a bit, at first, but you will save money over time. WasteFree Lunches estimates that one lunch using throwaway packaging, utensils, napkins and drink containers costs $1.37 more than the same meal in reusable containers. You can also reuse some of the containers you get at the grocery store. For example, the small glass container that anchovies come in makes a great soy sauce container for older children. And, of course, you can send utensils and a cloth napkin from home.

Consider the types of foods to include in the lunch as well as the portions. According to TeensHealth.org, “Portion sizes began to increase in the 1980s and have been ballooning ever since. Take bagels, for example: 20 years ago, the average bagel had a 3-inch diameter and 140 calories. Today, bagels often have a 6-inch diameter and 350 calories. One bagel that size actually contains half a person’s recommended number of grain servings for an entire day!”

In terms of the types of foods to include, remember that we have a lot in common with gorillas whose diets are mostly fruits and vegetables. Half of our children’s lunches should be fruits and vegetables. The other half should be nearly equally divided between grains and protein.

Protein is important for everyone. One to three-year-olds need about 16 grams of protein a day; that’s about a half an ounce. A four to six-year-old needs about 24 grams of protein a day, or just a little under an ounce. A seven to ten-year-old needs 28 grams, or just about an ounce. Eleven to 14-year-olds take a huge leap in protein needs, jumping to 62 grams a day or 2.2 ounces. For the rest of our lives, we need between 64 and 70 grams of protein a day. Two-and-a-half ounces of protein a day is the most we ever need. Three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards or a bar of soap.

Dairy sources of protein include milk, yogurt and cheeses. Animal sources of protein include eggs, red meat, poultry, pork, fish and shellfish. Plant sources of protein are plentiful. An ounce of seeds or nuts, for example, contains about three to six grams of protein. Plant sources of protein include almonds, peanuts and other nuts and nut butters. Pumpkin, sunflower and other seeds as well as Tahini, sesame butter, are all good sources.

Cooked beans, peas and lentils are another excellent source of plant protein. One cup contains 14 grams of protein. Soybeans are especially high in protein. Tofu and Falafel are good plant protein sources.

Here are some vegetable suggestions for the lunchbox:

Sliced carrots (whole carrots, not “baby” carrots)

Cherry tomatoes

Sliced cucumbers

Salad (dressing in separate container)

Cole slaw (dressing in separate container)

Celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter or creamed cheese

Corn on the cob

Vegetable soup

Cold steamed veggies with dressing

Raw veggies with humus or sour cream dip

Cucumber pickles

Pickled beets

Black olives

Here are some grain choices:

Sandwich

Bagel

Granola

Granola bar

Pasta

Pasta Salad

Croutons in the salad

Cheese and crackers

Popcorn

Chips and salsa

Quesadilla

Rice or quinoa

Rice or quinoa salad

Pretzels

Assembling a balanced lunch now is easy:

1. Select two vegetable choices.

2. Select two grain choices.

3. Include a piece or two of fruit, or some berries.

4. Choose 1/3 to ¾ of an ounce of protein, depending on the age of your child.

5. Some of these selections could be in a soup or stew in the thermos.

6. Include fresh water in a reusable container.

Check out the 2011-2012 School Lunchbox Thread for many ideas, links and photos. And, please share your own tips with us.

Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded Mothering.com in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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