It’s time to go back to school and parents are scrambling to find foods that their kids will eat (and not trade or throw away) at lunch and snack time. The name of the game is convenience – food and snacks that can be packed with the least amount of fuss or muss. Companies put a lot of thought and effort into preparing (and marketing) tasty and convenient foods for children’s lunchboxes. Reading the ingredients labels on many of the available snacks, however, might have you thinking twice before you buy.
Pre-packaged Food Contains Additives
In addition to cost and waste, pre-packaged foods often contain artificial ingredients that may be harmful to kids. Additives, including artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors, can affect a child’s behaviour and health. While these chemicals may fall within industry standards and have FDA approval, little research exists on their safety. Look for and avoid such ingredients as artificial colors, high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrite, sulfur dioxide, and polysorbates 60, 65, and 80.
Healthy, balanced meals begin with some basic ingredients: whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and a good source of protein. Send your kids off to school with at least one of each. Time-savers such as Lunchables or processed meats don’t provide kids with the nutrients they need to focus and perform optimally in the classroom. For the sake of their long-term health, avoid cold cuts unless they’re nitrite-free. Studies repeatedly indicate that processed meats are linked to cancer and can cause other adverse health effects. Instead, prepare sandwiches with whole grain breads, wraps or pitas, and fill them with tuna, salmon, egg, chicken or turkey breast (that you cooked yourself at home), avocado, or grilled veggies and cheese.
- Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes.
- Instead of sliced bread, make sandwiches from whole grain tortillas (wraps), bagels, and pitas.
- Make boring chicken or turkey sandwiches more interesting by adding thinly sliced apple or pear.
- Transform bland tuna sandwiches by mixing in honey-mustard, salsa, or fresh dill.
- Nut-free SunButter is made from sunflower seeds and is a safe and delicious alternative to peanut butter. Mix with some organic jam for a great-tasting sandwich.
- Homemade pizza can be extremely nutritious and makes a fun lunch that your kids won’t want to share. Start with a whole grain crust (gluten-free is even better) and top with tomato sauce or pesto and fresh vegetables.
- Leftover veggie chili or chicken stir-fry can taste even better the next day. Roll into a whole wheat wrap for an easy school lunch.
Many nutrients are critical for learning. Emphasize these when you’re planning meals:
Protein – your child’s day should begin with a protein-rich meal or snack. Protein stimulates the production of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that will improve concentration and behavior at school. Aim for up to 20 grams of protein at breakfast – the amount provided by two large eggs. If your child isn’t hungry in the morning, a smoothie made with yogurt, some protein powder, avocado, nut butter, or tofu will supply the protein needed for good results.
Omega-3, especially DHA is critical for healthy brain development and good vision. Fish, the best source of DHA, isn’t popular with picky children, but many fish oil supplements formulated for kids are quite tasty (tell them it’s candy!). Vegan omega-3 supplements are available as well.
Whole grains – brown breads, rice and pastas provide B vitamins which support brain function and important minerals, including chromium and magnesium. While it isn’t ‘brain food’, the fiber in whole grains helps to keep blood sugar (and energy levels) stable, and of course, promotes regularity.
Avoid These Foods
High-fat meals such as burgers, hot dogs and fries divert blood flow from the brain towards the digestive system and can interfere with a child’s ability to focus at school.
Sodas and juices are just empty calories that affect blood sugar levels causing low energy and poor concentration. Instead, drink water or milk.
The vending machine.
Healthy After School Snacks
- Top whole-grain crackers with your favorite healthy spreads, such as almond butter, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, or guacamole.
- Make your own trail mix with raw nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. Nuts provide essential fats, and dried fruit is packed with minerals. Spice up your mix with shredded coconut, dried pineapple or mango, granola or other dry cereal, or dark chocolate chips.
- Get creative with vegetables. Instead of chips, prepare a veggie platter with a tasty dip.
- Fresh fruit is a perfect and convenient snack. Rotate fruit to include different types each week.
- Dry-roasted soy nuts, chick peas, and green peas make a tasty fiber- and protein-rich snack.
- Popcorn sprinkled with sea salt or sea vegetables is always fun to eat and provides some fiber.
- A fruit smoothie is a perfect, quick, and nutritious snack, especially if your kids are on-the-go after school.
- Organic yogurt cups or plain yogurt topped with fresh fruit are always a great snack for before, during, or after school.