In the good old days, parents assumed that a nice balanced “hot lunch” prepared in the school’s cafeteria kitchen by trained cooks usually trumped a cold sack lunch.
The reality today is that in many schools, a kitchen doesn’t even exist. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has kitchens in only about 20 percent of its schools. In many schools, meals are just reheated frozen “fast food” products slapped together on a tray: Defrosted chicken nuggets, canned green beans and canned fruit cups are still served up on a regular basis.
So is it better to pack a lunch for your kids? The answer is not as clear as you might think. The good news is that a growing number of schools have hired cooks and chefs to prepare fresh, from-scratch meals. Many schools even offer salad bars. In fall 2012, new federal guidelines introduced changes requiring menus to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less fat and sodium. Farm-to-school programs add the option of locally grown produce to the menu.
Is your child’s sack lunch any better? It really depends on what you’re filling it with. If it contains high-fat chips, salty meats and a can of soda or fruit juice, then it’s probably not. But if it’s packed with nutrient-dense foods, then you’re probably doing as well or better than school offerings. Make those sack lunches a little more exciting so kids look forward to eating—try spruced up sandwiches with freshly baked whole wheat bread, sliced avocados and some tuna salad (try subbing out half the mayonnaise for plain Greek yogurt to boost protein and cut the fat). Make a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and homemade Kretschmer Wheat Germ Granola or just a sprinkle of wheat germ on top for added vitamins and minerals. Purchase a thermos and pack hot soup or a warm pasta in the winter.
A combo of school lunch and sack lunch might be the best option for your child, especially if you’re busy and your child likes the school lunch. Take a look at the school menu and visit the cafeteria during lunch time if you’re concerned about their meals. Let your children choose the days they like what’s being made in the cafeteria and on days they bring a lunch, have your child help you prepare it. Ask them to come along with you to the grocery store or farmer’s market to pick out a new vegetable to try in their lunch. Giving them some say about what’s in their lunch goes a long way toward encouraging meal experimentation. Eating a healthy, filling lunch along with some snacks throughout the day will help your child focus better in school. They’ll thank you later.