What to Pack in a Healthy Lunch
Success at school and at work has a lot to do with the type of fuel people put in their bodies.
Making a healthy lunch promotes good eating habits, is cost-effective and ensures that people of all ages will make it through the day with the energy they need.
Providing a healthy lunch for children also helps build a foundation for healthy eating.
“Putting carrots in your child’s lunch instead of chips, or giving them milk or water instead of a sugary beverage, is important—especially in lunches that you give them every day,” said Deanna Hoelscher, Ph.D., R.D., director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living and John P. McGovern Professor in Health Promotion at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health. “These things add sugar tokids’ diets, and they don’t really need those extra calories. It also kind of sets kids up when they are drinking; they think it has to be sweet.”
Hoelscher conducted a study of sack lunches prepared by parents who were sending their children off to preschool. That study led to a nutrition education program that aims to increase the vegetables, fruits and grains that end up in kids’ lunches.
“Lunch is in the Bag is a program we started and it teaches parents how to pack a healthy lunch for their preschool kids,” Hoelscher said. “Most preschools offer a hot lunch, but there are a certain number that require parents to send a lunch, and that can be in high-and low-income settings. What we found, regardless of the parent income, is that most parents were not packing healthy lunches.”
Hoelscher said many of the lunches parents packed lacked the fruits and vegetables that are essential to a well-balanced meal. Instead, the lunches were filled with foods with added sugars.
“Many of the lunches contained foods that parents perceived to be healthy—granola bars, fruit leather, fruit drinks, apple sauce and canned fruits,” Hoelscher said. “If you have the choice, a piece of fruit is much healthier than fruit leather or a fruit juice.”
Another obstacle she and her team encountered was the perceived eating habits of children. Hoelscher and her team found that many of the unhealthy options parents packed in their children’s lunches were chosen because they didn’t think their children would eat healthier options.
“Interestingly enough, when we talk to other teachers, the teachers say the children will try other foods in the school setting,” Hoelscher said. “The kids are in a different environment, they see what other kids are eating and the teachers might be encouraging them to eat different foods.”
In her work as a clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, Stacey Beer, MPH, R.D., L.D., witnesses similar food struggles.
“I do encourage eliminating the words ‘picky eater,’” Beer said. “There are foods we like, there are foods we are learning and foods we may not prefer. But overall, it takes about 15 times for you to know if you like something. I encourage parents to mix foods with foods they know their child likes to try to get them to accept new foods, but I really try to stay away from labeling kids as picky eaters.”
So what goes into the perfect lunch?
“I think an ideal lunch really focuses on balance—multiple food groups within a meal to ensure you are receiving all of the vitamins and minerals you need,” Beer said.
Beer recommends starting with a main dish and working from there. One of her favorites to make for her own children is a tortilla roll-up. Start with a tortilla, add a little mustard, turkey and cheese, then roll it up and cut it up into pinwheels. Next, Beer suggests fruit—grapes, watermelon, apples or strawberries are popular—and vegetables, such as carrots or celery. If you want to add even more, she said, hummus and pretzels make a great snack.
In Hoelscher’s study, she and her team ranked lunches on a healthy eating index to show parents different options for easy, nutritious lunches.
“One with a high score had a banana, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread, crackers, milk and carrots,” Hoelscher said. “All of that is really easy to prepare and it is very healthy.”
Many of the options Beer and Hoelscher suggest are also cost-effective. For added efficiency, Beer believes packing a lunch the night before makes a big difference, because mornings are rushed for most families.
Parents also need to remember to pack a lunch for themselves, as it will take less toll on their wallets and waistlines than buying a lunch.
“If you have dinner, cook a little bit more and bring that as leftovers the next day,” Hoelscher said. “You can also make a salad in a mason jar the night before. Start with dressing at the bottom, roasted chickpeas, chicken or turkey, then the heavier vegetables—tomato, peppers, carrots—and lettuce at the top. For lunch the next day, just turn it out on a plate.”