Love it or hate it, it’s that time of year again – back to school and for many of us, it also means back to packing school lunches.
Long gone are the days of throwing a PB&J sandwich, a Joe Louis and an apple in a bag can calling it a day. And don’t get me started on the bazillion containers to wash. Every. Single. Night. and the grungy lunch bag – gross, but I digress.
Our house doesn’t really get a break from packing lunches over the summer as our daughter heads off to day camps most of the summer. So for those of you who don’t get a 2 month break – I feel you! It’s hard to keep things interesting…for everyone.
We all want to pack healthful and nutritious food for our kids, but it can feel overwhelming at times. With what seems to be ever growing lists of things kids can’t bring in their lunches, it can seem as though it is harder to know what to pack and sometimes even harder to know what kids will actually eat. But what if I told you it doesn’t have to be that hard? What if making a few things ahead of time, that you know are healthful and packed with nutrients, makes it easier.
Eating a balanced snack or meal is very important for everyone, especially for kids who are growing and learning. It keeps them feeling full longer and it helps maintain balanced blood sugars. Why is this so important? Have you ever used the phrase ‘hangry’ to describe your little one’s behaviour when they’re hungry or noticed downward shifts in your child’s of focus, mood swings, or appetite? These can all be signs of imbalanced blood sugars. By ensuring that they are not having spikes and crashes, we can help improve their overall energy levels, help improve attention and focus, improve sleep, and their moods. All important pieces to support their success in school (and home).
I want to give you a quick breakdown on how to pack a nutritionally balanced lunch for your kiddos that is not super time consuming and they will enjoy. When I talk about a balanced lunch, I mean one that includes the different macronutrient groups; carbohydrates/fiber, protein, fat, and water, and one that is rich in micronutrients.
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals found in all the foods we eat. They help the nutrients work together, so having a diet packed full of them is very important. While they are found in every food, each food has a different set of micronutrients, so eating a varied diet is helpful to ensure you’re getting the wide range of vitamins and minerals. Don’t forget to eat the rainbow!
Carbohydrates are made up of different types of sugar molecules that the body uses to create energy. There are 2 types of carbohydrates, refined and complex. Refined carbohydrates are just that – refined. They tend to be the processed foods that are often sugar filled with little nutritional value like most cereals, pastas, breads, cookies, and so on. Complex carbohydrates however are whole foods that are rich in fiber and nutrient filled. Examples are whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, and whole grains. Why do we want more complex carbohydrates in our diets and far less refined carbohydrates?
When we consume carbohydrates the glucose molecules are broken down and brought into the blood stream for quick energy, the more refined, the quicker our blood sugar level rise (and ultimately crash). The preference is to have a slower release and absorption of the glucose so that energy levels stay stabilized. This can be achieved when we eat whole complex carbohydrates and even more so when they are combined with protein and some healthful fat; think of an apple with nut or seed butter or veggies with hummus.
Fiber helps keep us full longer, helps maintain a healthy gut, and helps rid the body of waste and toxins, and it is also found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, and whole grains.
Protein provides the building blocks we need to grow and repair our body tissue. Examples are animal protein like chicken, fish, beef, and pork, but there are also many plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
Fats are another great source of energy, and they help absorb certain vitamins for our brain health and help produce hormones. We want fats that have health benefits instead of those that cause oxidative stress (cell damage) and inflammation. In addition to the right fats, we need them in the right ratio, for example, the ideal ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats is 1:1 or at least 1:4. However most people consume a much higher ratio of Omega-6 fats. Omega-6 fats are easily oxidized with heat or light exposure, creating free radicals, which can damage cells; not something we want for growing kids. Many processed and prepared foods are made with vegetable oils (canola, soy bean, etc) that are high in Omega-6. Healthful fats on the other hand, such as fish, avocado, coconut oil are higher in Omega-3 and provides the body with tools that supports many of the body’s functions.
Water is critical for overall health, including brain health.
There you have it – these are the basic components of a healthful and balanced diet; as you see, no whole food group is excluded. Ensuring they are incorporated in your child’s daily lunch will help set them up for a good day of learning, playing, and growing.
Ok, so now what?
Including foods from each category doesn’t have to be overly complicated or stressful. Keep it simple! Some foods fall into more than one category, so bonus. Take chickpeas for example, it is a carbohydrate and protein, so when you make hummus and add some fresh cut veggies – bam! you’ve got a balanced snack. When you make things at home, you can ensure that they have more of what you need and less of what you don’t. Tip – get your kiddos involved, be it helping make muffins, chopping the veggies, or simply picking from the options you provide. They tend to be more likely to eat what they’re given when they have a say or lend a hand.
In addition to fresh fruit, veggies, and water bottle, here are a couple of our go-to’s for our daughter’s lunch that are nutrient dense and can help create balanced lunches.
Homemade hummus with vegetables – make your own using olive oil instead of store bought which often has vegetable or canola oil.
Yogurt – opt for full fat plain Greek or coconut if dairy isn’t tolerated. Top with homemade granola and fruit.
Energy balls – we keep ours in the freezer and just pop one in the lunch container in the morning.
Nori snacks with avocado – mmm…tastes like sushi
Muffins – make your own and freeze, throw them in the bag and they’ll be thawed by lunch. Use coconut oil, applesauce, and sprouted whole grains to increase the nutrients.
Wraps or sandwiches using sprouted and/or whole grain is a great option as they are higher in fiber and protein.
Mini quiche – you can pack those with chopped veggies.
Olives – good source of fat
Seeds – protein and fat
Leftovers – keep it simple
We also support our daughter with a whole food concentrate that provides her with the nutrients of over 30 fruits and vegetables. They are not meant to replace whole foods, but it does offer some extra assurance that she is getting the nutrients her growing body needs, If you’d like more info on how you can get them for your child and family, I’d love to connect.
So now that you have the building blocks on how to create a balanced lunch, I’d love to hear your favourite go-to’s and what tips you have that you and your family have found helpful.