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Brain Power: Pack a Smart Lunch for Your Child

Written by: Jaime Coffey Martinez - MS, RD, Nutrition Coach and Weight Loss Specialist

Like many parents, I face the daily challenge of trying to get my children to eat healthy. Breakfast and dinner are more easily controlled, but lunches can be tricky as they are the one meal our children oftentimes eat away from home and out of sight. This is the season of day camps, sports tournaments and other summertime excursions. However, it’s also a perfect time to practice packing healthy lunches, to learn what works and what doesn’t for your children — and to be prepared with lunch menus that are acceptable to everyone for the upcoming return to school.

Recently, school lunch programs have undergone scrutiny, and reviews reflect that some districts struggle with the balance of cost and quality.[i] Menus in many school lunch programs are too high in saturated fat and sugar and too low in fiber and nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.[ii] Unless you are fortunate enough to have high-quality, nutritious options available in your school districts, a packed lunch may be the healthier option for your child. As parents, we can pack powerful, healthy lunches our children will enjoy. Here are some suggestions for making it happen:

1. Make lunch a joint effort

Making sure your carefully prepared lunch does not get thrown into the trash can be tricky, but not impossible. Your odds for success increase significantly when both you and your children are involved in the food selections and the preparation of the lunch. Ask for input from your child; they will be more likely to eat what they choose. Of course, as a parent, you need to set the boundaries on their choices and provide nutritious alternatives to teach healthy habits. Your approach matters — see Parenting Styles and Feeding Practices.

 2.  “Checks” and balances

Proper nutrient balance is key to good health and requires that your meals offer a variety of foods. Each food group offers different vitamins and minerals needed for growth and development. Start by creating a checklist for children when developing your lunches.  The checklist should include five main food groups: Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy, and protein (animal or vegetable).  

While creating the lunch, have your child check off the items they are packing with the goal of having each food group included. Create a weekly calendar with the five groups of foods on each day to help reinforce nutrient balance and variety (see example below).  For younger children, try using pictures instead of words and have them circle or color the picture each day lunch is packed.

3. Give it a powerful punch

One-third of our children’s calories, vitamins and minerals should be provided at lunchtime to carry them through to supper. A well-balanced lunch helps keep a child’s energy up and their blood sugar stable. A high fat and high sugar lunch can lead to an afternoon crash. The proper foods will help ensure your child’s success throughout the day.  Mealtimes should avoid processed foods, especially those with a endless list of ingredients. Read labels and avoid the following ingredients: sugar and sugar buzz words (i.e. high fructose corn syrup), other “ose”-ending words, other syrups, as well as trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils). Instead, try to incorporate minimally processed, fresh and organic choices as much as possible.   

Beverages can also often be a source of unwanted sugars and calories. Soda, sports drinks and juices all contain sugar. Encourage your child to drink water to stay hydrated. Send a slice of citrus fruit to give the water more flavor. Of course, milk is a source of calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus and a great choice for those who are not lactose intolerant. Be sure to choose a lunch container that is insulated and offers a freezable insert.

“Power foods” offer high amounts of nutrients to promote optimal health. More specifically, brainpower foods are those that support cognitive brain function, attention, mood and memory. The inclusion of the following power foods in your child’s brown bag may help support his or her brain health:

  • Salmon and other deep cold water fish (omega-3 fatty acids)
  • Nuts and seeds (omega-3, vitamin E)
  • Whole grains (fiber, vitamin B and E, zinc)
  • Eggs (protein and choline)
  • Berries (essential vitamins/minerals, antioxidants, and omega-3)
  • Colorful veggies (essential vitamins/minerals and antioxidants)
  • Milk and yogurt (protein, B vitamins, vitamin D and calcium),
  • Lean meats, beans and legumes (iron, zinc, B vitamins and fiber from beans and legumes)

As the summer winds down and you find yourself shopping for school supplies, don’t forget to supply your child with healthy options for brainpower!

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.



[ii] Crepinsek, Mary K. Gordon, Anne R., McKinney, Patricia M., Condon, Elizabeth M., Wilson, Ander et al. Meals Offered and Served in US Public Schools: Do They Meet Nutrient Standards?  Journal of American Dietetic Association. 2009: 109(2): S31-S43.

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