While it is easy to rely on the school cafeteria for the kids and fast food meals for you, this pattern of eating will quickly result in unwanted pounds for you and lack of nutrition quality for your kids. The only way to ensure that you and your kids are eating a nutritionally balanced, health promoting lunch is to pack it yourself.
Use the following steps as your guide for packing healthy lunches that cover the wide variety of nutrients that you and your growing kids need.
No kids? No problem. Keep reading because these tips will be useful for your own nutrient-dense lunches while at work or at home.
Step 1: Hydration
The most beneficial and highly overlooked nutrient is water. Every function of the human body requires water, so it's a no-brainer that water should be included in your packed lunch. Eight glasses a day is a minimum. If you exercise, you should increase this amount by at least 2-3 glasses. If you’re thirsty, you’re dehydrated. Drink water with each of your meals and snacks throughout the day!
It's easy to fall into the trap of giving kids juice or soda pop, and once your kids are accustomed to drinking these sugary treats expect a battle when you switch to water. This is one fight that is worth winning.
Remind yourself that the sugary drinks are filled with empty calories, which quickly lead to weight gain. Sugar also robs the body of vital nutrients and minerals.
Step 2: Protein
* 3 – 5 servings daily
* 1 serving equals: 2 – 3oz meat, 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/3 cup nuts or one egg
Protein is an essential part of lunch, both for you and your kids. Kids need protein to support their growing body, and you need plenty of protein in order to build and maintain lean muscle tissue.
Here's a list of healthy protein sources: fish, beans, tofu, unsalted nuts or seeds, eggs, chicken, turkey, Greek non-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese, veggie burgers, low-fat chicken sausage, lean pork and lamb.
Limit the amount of high-saturated-fat protein that your kids eat to no more than 3 servings per week. These include full-fat cheese, hot dogs, salami, bacon and sausage.
Step 3: Whole Grains
* Kids 6-9 yrs: 4 – 7 servings daily
* Kids 10-14 yrs: 5 – 8 servings daily
* Teens: 6 – 9 servings daily
* 1 serving equals: 1 slice of whole grain bread, 1/2 bagel, 1/2 cup cooked rice, 1/2 cup pasta, 1 cup of whole grains
Whole grains are one of the major building blocks of a healthy meal. The key word here is "whole" meaning not refined.
White bread, bagels, pasta and rice have been stripped of the nutrients and minerals. As a result these items convert quickly into sugar, leaving your child drained after an initial quick burst of energy. Always avoid refined white grain products.
Here's a list of healthy whole grains: oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, millet, bulgur, whole-wheat or sprouted grain bread, barley, whole grain cereal and whole wheat pasta.
Step 4: Veggies
* 4 – 9 servings daily
* 1 serving equals: 1 cup raw of 1/2 cup cooked vegetables
Variety is the key when it comes to including vegetables in your meals. Include vegetables with color such as orange, red, purple, green, blue, white and yellow to make sure that your kids are getting all of the necessary vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Don't save vegetables for dinnertime. Pack each lunch with lots of colorful vegetables.
Try these veggie-packing ideas: Put a small container of hummus with cut veggies for dipping. Fill your sandwiches with baby arugula, roasted peppers and slices of tomato. Pack a container of veggie and whole wheat pasta instead of a sandwich. Invest in a small thermos and fill it with vegetable soup.
Step 5: Fruit
* 3 – 5 servings daily
* 1 serving equals: 1/2 cup cut fruit, whole fruit size of tennis ball, half a banana, 1/2 cup 100% fruit juice
Fresh fruit is filled with vitamins, nutrients and minerals. As with your veggies, choose a variety of colors to ensure that your kids are getting a range of nutrients.
Stay away from fruits that are canned and coated in syrup, and also from fruit snacks and chews that contain added sugars and artificial ingredients. If fresh fruit is not readily available then go for plain dried fruit, with no added sugar.
Unlike veggies, it IS possible to eat too much fruit. Though the natural sugars within fruit are much healthier than refined sugar, too much of it will have a negative impact on your blood sugar levels and the extra calories will be stored as fat. Stick with 3 – 5 servings per day and spread these out throughout the day.
Step 6: Calcium
* 4 – 6 servings daily
* Serving size based on the amount of calcium in the food. Examples of 1 serving: 1 cup cooked beans, 1/2 cup almonds, 1/2 cup dried figs, 1/2 cup dark leafy green vegetables, 1/2 cup tofu, 1 cup low-fat milk, 1 cup low or non-fat Greek or plain yogurt
Your kids need calcium in order to build strong, healthy bones. It is important to incorporate calcium into each meal. As you can see, calcium isn't just found in dairy products. There are many plant sources that contain calcium that are more readily absorbed by the body than the calcium found in dairy.
Try these sources of calcium: unsalted nuts, dark leafy greens, salmon, broccoli, tofu, soy milk, sardines, beans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, low-fat milk, low and non-fat Greek or plain yogurt.
Step 7: Healthy Fat
* 3 – 4 servings daily
* Serving size based on the amount of healthy fat in the food. Examples of 1 serving: 1 teaspoon of olive, safflower, sesame, flax or canola oil, 1/2 cup nuts, 1 tablespoon peanut, almond or cashew butter, 1 cup cooked beans, peas or lentils.
You may think of all dietary fat as being bad, but fat from plant sources are very important to the growth and development of a child's body. They are also important for adults, helping to reduce cholesterol levels and maintain a healthy heart. Healthy fats have also been shown to help with weight loss.
Limit animal fats, which are filled with saturated fat and cholesterol, and eliminate trans-fatty acids contained in foods that are labeled as hydrogenated.
There you have it, the essentials to building a nutritious, and energy-sustaining lunch. See the example below to get you started on your first day!
Here's what you need...
For the wrap:
- 1 Joseph’s Tortilla or Lavash Bread; Cedars Whole Wheat Wrap Tortilla; or La Tortilla Factory Tortilla
- 1 chicken breast (or your choice of protein: veggie patty, lean turkey, hardboiled egg, smoked salmon, grilled white fish, or baked tofu)
- Sliced tomato
- Romaine lettuce
- 1 Tablespoon hummus
For the veggies:
- 1/2 cup cut veggies (try broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and bell peppers) - 1/4 cup hummus
For the yogurt:
- 1/2 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt - Handful of berries (such as strawberries, blueberries or blackberries)
For the trail mix:
- 1oz raw mixed nuts
- 5 golden raisins
- Spread the tortilla with hummus, add lettuce, tomato slices and chicken breast. Wrap and slice in half.
- Wash and pack the cut veggies in plastic container. Pack the hummus in a small container.
- Pack the yogurt in a small container and top with the berries.
- Mix the raw nuts with the raisins and pack in a small container or bag.