Before I give you some practical, healthy alternatives for school lunches (skip below if you just need the list), first I want to answer the question, “What is the impact of fresh, healthy foods on learning and behavior?”
In the movie “Supersize Me”, they tell about a school in Appleton, Wisconsin:
“Walk down the hallways of the Appleton, Wisconsin, Central Alternative High School and you will see students focused on their education, interacting successfully with each other and with their teachers. Notice the calmness and purposefulness that sets these teens apart from others.
You will notice that the hallways are different in another respect. They aren’t lined with soft drink and junk food machines. Then check out the cafeteria. There is no smell of grease. Burgers, fries and burritos have been replaced with salads, meats prepared with old-fashioned recipes, and whole grain breads. Fresh fruits and vegetables are offered and the students drink water.
Grades are up, truancy is no longer a problem, arguments are rare, and teachers are able to spend their time teaching.”
It comes down to money, as usual
If this school can pull that off, why can’t all school districts do it?! I know that school lunch programs are similar to hospital food programs: they’re both dealing with limited funds. I also know they probably do the best they can with what they have, but come on! It’s sad (and ironic too) that quality food isn’t a higher priority for both institutions. (When I was in the hospital after our youngest son was born, I was shocked at the junk that came up on those trays! For one example: they still served margarine! A hospital of all places! And the meat smelled like processed, TV dinner food.) Also in this article (the link for the full article is below), they talk about how it may cost more for better quality school lunch food up-front, but the money society is saving down the road (crime and aggression is rare with these kids), more than makes up for it! I’d bet the same would be true in hospitals. The extra money spent up-front would surely be made up for in decreased health care costs, because people would get better quicker when their bodies are being nourished with healthy foods! It just makes sense!
Back to the main point…
You just can’t trust schools to feed your kids healthy foods. Our kids need nutrient dense meals, but most of what is offered for hot lunches still has trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, MSG and who knows how many other chemicals and preservatives. Besides the fact that most dietitians in charge of school lunches still buy into the “low-fat is better” mentality, so they don’t realize they should be using healthy fats for our kids, either (among other things that are important and not known in the mainstream).
It’s just best to send a lunch with your child every day!
Once it’s a habit, it’s no big deal!
Get into the habit of having your kids make their own lunches the night before school. Our Kindergartner even makes her own lunch. Keep only healthy options around so you don’t have to worry about what goes in.
Here are some ideas, including a few no-brainers and also some you may not have thought of:
First, don’t miss the comments below for more great lunch box ideas!
- Cheese sticks are a hit with my kids. (Grass-fed is best!)
- Other leftovers from last night’s dinner like a sprouted whole-wheat roll or spaghetti or soup in a thermos. (Leftover mac & cheese would probably go over well, too!)
- Healthy popcorn!
- Crispy nuts – Recipe from Nourishing Traditions - it’s a way to prepare various nuts to make them much healthier.
- Yogurt, made with whole-milk only – it’s not easy to find, but it can be done. Thank you to Natalie who reminded me about Brown Cow brand at Meijer – the cows are grass fed, and their cherry-vanilla flavor is yummy, but does have a lot of sugar… You could also sprinkle grape-nuts or raisins or maple syrup onto plain yogurt.
- Two of my kids love Deviled eggs. Also, just hard-boiled eggs, are a good snack that you can get by some kids. Maybe sprinkle on some sea salt.
- Turkey roll-ups (see lunch meat info above) with cheese inside or veggies if your kids will go for that. We also do this with the ham or bologna we buy from our pasture-based farmer.
- Organic Bunny Crackers, or other crackers that are baked, not extruded. (Read this about extruded foods.) (Update: these types of snacks are expensive and I don’t buy them much anymore, besides, “organic” doesn’t mean healthy.)
- You could roll up different sandwich fillers into tortillas – make sure you find tortillas with no trans fat, it’s not easy but it can be done! I even found some without soybean oil or other unhealthy vegetable oils, the ones I use are made with olive oil: “La Tortilla Factory” brand. Unfortunately these still have a long ingredient label (preservatives), but they’re better than others out there. (Update: try making your own tortillas!)
- Don’t send juice boxes, and I hope it goes without saying not to send them with pop! I try to give our kids juice only on special occasions, and then it’s the kind with 100% juice. If they want pop, I’ll let them have an occasional “Izze” – the only ingredients are 100% juice and sparkling water. I get them through our buying club, but Meijer has those and other similar kinds. Otherwise all they drink is water or milk, and I also have organic chocolate syrup I let them mix into their milk once in a while for a treat. Update: try making your own homemade soda pop!
- Organic applesauce cups (I buy them from the buying club through our health food store.)
- Organic packets of carrots and dip, or other veggies with a little cup of organic ranch dip (I make my own with a packet of Simply Organic seasoning mix so there’s no MSG. Update: now I make my own ranch dip or dressing without the packet and it’s SO good!)
- Fruit cups occasionally (Check the label to be sure there’s no high fructose corn syrup and I look for the ones with as few ingredients as possible.)
- Organic graham crackers, maybe with organic peanut butter in between a couple. (Keep in mind that although I mention peanut butter in the next few suggestions, too much isn’t good due to the high phytic acid content since they weren’t made with soaked nuts.)
- Sandwiches w/ leftover meat from last night’s dinner, organic peanut butter/organic jelly (no trans fats or high fructose corn syrup), tuna fish (canned from a health food store-without soybean oil!), a slice of all-natural cheese (no “American” slices, and even better is cheese from grass-fed cows!), read about lunch meats, hopefully you can find some without MSG, nitrates or preservatives from your local farmer like we can. Try to use whole-grain bread, organic and fermented/sourdough/soaked bread if you can, but at least the kind without high fructose corn syrup or trans fats.
- Fresh fruit, organic if you can. You could cut up some apple slices (with a little fresh lemon juice to keep them from turning brown) and send a little container with peanut butter dip. (My kids love this.)
- Granola bars – I either buy Kashi – those are more natural with no rotten ingredients – or even better, I often make my own granola!
- If you’d like to give them a treat in their lunch, I buy organic fruit leather through my buying club, or keep extra homemade cookies in the freezer. (I always make double or triple batches.)
- Bagels, plain or with cream cheese. Or you could do various bagel sandwiches. 100% whole-wheat – even better if it’s made with a soaked flour or sourdough recipe.
- That’s all I can think of right now, because my kids typically take the same thing every day! Do you have more ideas?
- Here’s my post on water bottles and plastic safety – some are made with rotten plastic that can leach chemicals into your drink. I found these made by Nalgene (not all theirs are safe, though) and they’re made of a safe plastic, HDPE – although as little plastic you can use, the better. These are only $4.80 including tax, and no shipping! (I’d gotten some at Target once for $6 each that I had to take back when I found out they were made with one of the bad plastics: polycarbonate.) These are also wide-mouth, so they get clean in the dishwasher. We use them for soccer practice and school lunches. Always refill these each morning, don’t leave water in it for a long period. (Reluctantly, I let my teen take disposable water bottles in his lunches, because he doesn’t want to bring anything back home.) (***Some even healthier kid’s cup alternatives are in the links below.)
Do you have more healthy ideas? PLEASE comment below!
One important last note:
If your child occasionally asks to eat hot lunch, let them! If you make a huge issue of it, they’ll just want it even more. My 3rd grader and Kindergartner have never even asked – probably because they know they get out to recess faster when they don’t have to go through the line. Also since they’ve never had it, it’s just not familiar to them. If they did ask for it, though, I’d do what a friend does: let them pick their favorite hot lunch food and only eat it on those days. When the kids are older the crappy options increase, with some schools offering various choices right from fast food restaurants! It’s not easy, but when my teen will occasionally say, “I’m going to get lunch at school tomorrow, OK Mom?”, I’ll always say OK, because he only asks once every month or two at the MOST, and I just know better than to make it become something bigger than it needs to be…even though he’s getting their burgers, with meat from who knows where, fries, a.k.a. “poison sticks”, and a pop…oh boy – I try not to think about it! Also I try to just remember how little of that junk he has compared to some teenagers!
Update 10/10: my oldest is now in college, and I’m happy to say that the younger 3 never even ask for hot lunch, yay!
- Foogo, Thermos Straw Bottle/stainless steel, Pink - we love ours!
- Foogo, Thermos Straw Bottle/stainless steel, Blue
- News story about biggest meat supplier for school lunches
- A reminder that low-fat dairy is NOT healthy
- Another post about healthy kid’s lunches
- Read about how the Chez Panisse Foundation seeks to change the way children eat
- More about the school in Appleton, Wisconsin
- Note: I highly recommend the movie, “Supersize Me“, but BEWARE, there are two different versions: PG-13 and the PG/family friendly version!
- Book suggestions on nutrition and more
- Eating healthy on a budget
- Kitchen Gadgets to Make Life Easier
- Read the letter I sent our school superintendent about school lunches