It’s 10:30 a.m. and children across the country line up for the first lunch shift of the day. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t hungry; space in the lunch room is tight, and staggered eating shifts are required to ensure that every student gets fed.
When they get to the food station, they pile their trays with chicken fried steak, French fries and Jell-O; others opt for Belgian waffles and sausage. They grouse that unlike at their older siblings’ schools, the cafeteria doesn’t offer food from Pizza Hut or Taco Bell.
Welcome to the feedlot that is the American school lunch. Thirty-three years after the Reagan administration tried to declare ketchup as a vegetable for school lunches, education budget crunches and the politics of the food industry have successfully turned what should be a nutritious and refreshing midday pause into an unhealthy and emotionally stressful feeding frenzy.
POLITICS AT PLAY
More than 32 million school children take part in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and more than 12 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. But while the program can be credited with making sure that children from low-income families do not go hungry, it also subsidizes agribusiness at the expense of good nutrition. Each year under the program, the federal government buys up more than $800 million worth of cheese, whole milk, beef and pork — the very types of heavy, high-saturated-fat foods that contribute to obesity, diabetes and heart disease — and sends them on to schools. Because most schools are under intense pressure to tighten their operating costs, they rely on the program to meet their budgets.
But it’s not just the high-saturated fat content that has nutritionists, educators and Michelle Obama worried. School lunches are also loaded with sugar. Besides the cookies, brownies and Jell-O that are the staples of many cafeteria desserts, many schools serve soft drinks during lunch. Twenty years ago children drank two times more milk than soda. Today that figure is reversed. And even though many states have banned sugar-filled sodas from schools as an effort to combat childhood obesity, it doesn’t reduce overall consumption levels of sweetened beverages. Studies have shown that about 13 percent of the average teenagers’ total daily calories come from sugary drinks.
students who drink soda during the school day are more prone not only to obesity, but also attention and behavior problems from caffeine surges and sugar crashes. Heavy soda drinkers are also less likely to get the recommended levels of vitamin A and calcium and are at an increased risk of magnesium deficiency.
MAKING THE GRADE — PACKING A HEALTHY LUNCH
So what do we do as parents to ensure that your children get the proper nutrition and fuel for their brains? The solution comes from home – sending Johnny to school with an old-fashioned meal from Mom’s kitchen. Here’s a few tips to make sure your child has all the needed elements to make it through the day:
- Provide variety. You may think that your child will only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and you may be right — in the short run. But nutritionists say that it can take as many as 15 exposures to a new food for a child to develop a taste for it. So try tossing in some edamame, or baby corn or veggies with a little container of dip. And don’t give up if they come back home uneaten the first few times.
- Cut it up. Many fruits and vegetables are a lot more appetizing to young kids when they are served up in bite-size pieces. A little cutting-board time may make all the difference in whether that orange or apple gets eaten, played with or traded. Sliced thin or grated, many vegetables (such as cucumbers or carrots) can get incorporated into sandwiches without inviting objections.
- Don’t pack a sugary dessert with every lunch, and skip the chocolate milk. Try packing a Granny Smith apple or a container of ripe pineapple slices instead. On days when you do include dessert, opt for a couple of small gingersnaps rather than a giant chocolate-chunk cookie.
- Resist the Lunchables marketing machine. Oscar Mayer knows that kids find all those nifty little compartments irresistible. The problem is that Lunchables are also loaded with enough salt and saturated fat for one high-blood pressure specialist to call them “high blood-pressure bombs.” If your child is nagging you to let her bring Lunchables to school, sit down with her and help her understand why they are so compelling. Then see if you can reproduce the effects with a more homemade attempt: Make tiny portion sizes and pack them in an ice cube tray or individual reusable plastic containers.
- Include an afternoon snack. If your child eats lunch at 10:30, she’s going to be pretty hungry in the early afternoon. Pack a high-quality energy bar, a half sandwich or a serving of fruit and cheese to help her get through the rest of the day.
- Know your school’s policy regarding nuts and peanut butter. Many schools will not allow them, so edamame, hummus, and of course turkey and cheese are great protein alternatives if your kid will eat them.
The new school year has begun and this means it’s time once again to plan healthy, good-tasting and portable lunches. Show your kids you care by packing the healthiest lunch possible.