Survey a school lunch table and you will find neon-colored yogurt that squirts from a tube, fruit drowning in syrup, flavored milk and kid nutrition bars full of things like brown rice syrup (sugar), barley malt (another kind of sugar) and evaporated cane juice (more sugar) covered with chocolate. And these are the lunches kids actually bring from home.
School cafeterias and lunch programs, with a few notable exceptions, feature high fat menus with things like heavily battered chicken nuggets, overcooked green beans, greasy pizza and more fruit swimming in syrup. Along with the excess carbs and sugars, kids get a side dish of low energy, behavioral problems and health risks.
Good food is critical to brain development, which is, in turn, critical to learning and behavior. Research shows that kids who eat well perform better academically, focus more effectively and cope more easily with anxiety, stress and self-esteem issues. Conversely, kids who eat poorly struggle with shortened attention spans, fatigue, concentration problems, lower comprehension and lower test scores across a range of subjects. Poor nutrition is linked to epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes in this country; the Center for Disease Control estimates that 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are obese and predicts that one-third of all children born in 2000 will develop diabetes.
School nutrition is an issue that goes well beyond our own kitchens, and we should all sow the seeds for healthy change. Beginning with the little brown bag, we can feed our kids well and show them how to make healthy choices when they are ordering food for themselves.
What is in a healthy lunch?
Protein, fruits and vegetables lay the groundwork, according to Sally LaMont, a nutritionist, naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist. Make sure all of these elements are in the bag or on the lunch tray every day:
Proteins, made up of the amino acids essential to brain and nervous system function, are readily found in eggs, dairy products, fish, poultry and meat. Try hard boiled eggs or egg salad, yogurt, cheese, tuna fish or canned salmon, chicken, turkey, yogurt or cheese. For vegetarian kids, LaMont advises bean and grain combinations like hummus and pita bread, burritos or gardenburgers.
Fruits and vegetables should include a piece of whole fruit (rather than a plastic tub of syrupy cooked fruit), a serving of veggies (cherry tomatoes, carrots, jicama, celery, edamame, red peppers) that can come with ranch dressing, hummus or bean dip.
Nuts and seeds provide essential fatty acids, which actually form much of our brain's infrastructure. Think beyond peanut butter to almond and cashew butters and tahini (sesame butter).
Now, how do you get kids to eat all that nutritious stuff?
Introduce new flavors early and often. Help kids to appreciate all the flavors of life, said LaMont. If your child has a very limited palate and blanches at the site of asparagus or turkey meatballs, try, try again. And take it slow.
Reconnect kids to the source of their food. Take kids into the garden or to a nearby farm (contact the Agricultural Institute of Marin to find one nearby) let them pluck a cherry tomato from the vine and sprinkle it with a little sea salt or a bite of basil. Visit the farmers market, pick a bright green pea from the stand and ask them to taste the sugar in it, or try a weekly scavenger hunt for a new taste.
Feed yourself. How many times do we pack a beautiful lunch for our kids and end up eating a bag of gummy bears and a diet Coke? Show your kinds how important good nutrition is by packing a healthy lunch for yourself as well.
With these ingredients, we can inspire our children to make healthy choices once they graduate to the high school cafeteria and beyond. For LaMont, a parent herself, "it's about education, seasoned with flexibility." Raise your child to understand food as a healing substance, a kind of life-line that provides them the fuel to be healthy, and they come to understand food as that. At the same time, raise them to understand the concept of moderation and let them have a little sugary junk food every now and then.
Advocate for healthy school lunches
Concern over school lunch menus laden with sugary, high-fat fare has ignited blogs (read Anne Cooper's The Renegade Lunch Lady), celebrity chef campaigns (like Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution), and is increasingly being viewed as a social justice issue. Visit the Farm to School Network, learn about the Healthy School Meals Act of 2010 or Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to get involved. Closer to home, ask your PTA to address school nutrition — the Dixie School District is using it in curriculum. Check out Project Lunch and the Marin Food Systems Project a coalition of teachers, parents, and community leaders working to recognize the connection between healthy diet and high achievement. And always eat your broccoli.
Thanks to Deborah Meshel, RN and Sally LaMont, N.D., L.Ac. for their expertise. Sally LaMont is a naturopathic doctor, acupuncturist and educator who is available to speak to your classes or organization.