Back-to-School Edition: Healthy, Homemade Lunches

school lunchThe food choices children make impact them now and in the years to come. Nutrition habits such as eating a balanced, healthy lunch and drinking water give children the fuel they need to succeed during the remaining school day and after school activities. The best way to ensure that children’s lunches incorporate all of the essential nutrients and none of the toxic substances found in today’s packaged and processed food is to send them to school with a healthy, homemade lunch and a canteen of water.

Prevent Obesity and Chronic Disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18% of children ages 6-11 years old and 21% of children ages 12-17 are obese and in 2012, “more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.” Eating healthy not only reduces your child’s chance of becoming obese, it also reduces their likelihood of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. School provided lunches are loaded with unhealthy foods, and beverages and serve as one of the main drivers of the child obesity epidemic. In the 2014 documentary Fed Up, Robert Lustig provides the science around the underlying causes of the nation’s obesity epidemic and President Bill Clinton states that “80 percent of the obesity problem would be solved if schools prepared fresh food instead.”

The Risks of Eating Lunch Provided by School

unhealthy lunch, fall 2014 blogThe Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), responsible for the School Health Policies and Programs Study, provides the most comprehensive analysis of school health policies in the U.S. A CDC study found that 11.7% of elementary schools, 19% of middle schools, and 23.5% of high schools offered lunchtime meals from fast food restaurants, such as Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

Beverages High in Added Sugars Promoted by American Schools

Another contributing issue is the surplus of drinks with added sugars served in vending machines, concession stands, and cafeterias at school. We now know that added sugar is a toxic substance if over-consumed and is a major factor in the childhood obesity epidemic. The Milk Processors Education Program claims “70% of milk consumed in schools is flavored, mostly chocolate.” To put that in perspective, fat-free chocolate milk has a total of 8 grams (2 teaspoons) of added sugar and fat-free strawberry milk has a total of 12-15 grams (3-4 teaspoons) of added sugar depending on the brand. The CDC conducted a study measuring the beverage consumption among high school students in the U.S. The study reports that 62.8% of high school students drank any combination of soda, a sports drink, or a serving of another type of sugar-sweetened beverage daily and 32.9% consumed these unhealthy beverages two or more times per day. The article Are we too Sweet? Our Kids’ Addiction to Sugar, outlines the American Heart Association added sugar consumption guidelines in comparison to what is actually consumed. Children ages 4-8 should consume no more than 12 grams or 3 teaspoons of added sugar a day and pre-teen and adolescents who have a daily caloric intake of 1800-2000 calories per day should not be consuming more than 5 to 8 teaspoons or 20-32 grams of added sugar daily. The scary truth is that 4-8 year olds on average consume 21 teaspoons a day and 14-18 year olds are averaging 34 teaspoons a day.

Boosting Academic Performance

When students do not consume healthy foods, they lack the nutrients needed for optimal cognitive functioning. Moreover, not getting the proper nutrients, can also lead to shortened attention span, fatigue, and reduced standardized test scores. The Journal of School Health published a study of public school students in which beverage choices were reflected upon test scores. The study concluded that students who drank sweetened beverages were more likely to have lower math test scores.

Tips for Sending Children with A Healthy Homemade Lunch

  • Get them involved: Let your kids help you plan meals, go grocery shopping, and prepare the food. They will become invested in the process and more likely to eat healthy foods.
  • Go to the source: Teach your kids where their food comes from. Instead of going to the supermarket, you can try taking them to a local farmer’s market or even pick their own fruit from a farm.
  • Pack healthy snacks: Examples may include apple slices, carrots, and whole grain crackers.
  • Be a role model: If you eat healthy foods your child will be encouraged to do the same.
  • Follow the Healthy Plate Model: Give your child a lunch rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein. Also follow serving size recommendations.
  • Healthy beverages: Pack a reusable water bottle that your child can fill up at school. Avoid packing sugary drinks like juice, flavored milk, Gatorade, CapriSun, or soda.

For more information on healthy eating habits for children, read The Critical Role Parents Play in Determining the BMI of Their Children published by The Weight Management Dietetic Practice Group.

Here’s to a healthy start of the 2014-2015 school year!

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