Packing School Lunches?

As school begins again, it is time for many of us to get back into routines, including packing lunches.  The foods our children eat throughout the day give them energy and nutrients to learn, grow, and play.  Nutritious meals and snacks matter.  Healthy eating is has a positive relationship with learning.  For example, this spring researchers from the University of Alberta published findings that boys who met current recommendations for sugar intake did five percent better on exams than boys who did not. 

What are children typically bringing to school or daycare for lunch?  Of course, it varies among children and families.  Yet, as a dietitian, one of the themes I hear from school teachers and early childhood educators is that children’s lunches tend to contain many packaged sugary treats – granola bars, cookies, pudding cups, gummy fruit snacks, etc.  There may be two or three of these packages in a child’s lunch box each day.  Most packaged treats contain 8-12 g of sugar according to the food labels.  This is equivalent to 2-3 teaspoons (or cubes) of sugar per package.  It can add up quickly.

Researchers from the University of Western Ontario observed and analyzed the contents of home-packed lunches of 321 Grade 3 and 4 students.  They found that only 41% of the students had vegetables in their lunch, but almost all had snack foods (less nutritious items, typically high in fat, salt, or sugar).  This month, a research team from the University of Guelph published study findings that in preschool-age children, snacks provided about one-third of their daily calories and 37% of these calories came from sugar.  These studies seem to support what educators in Manitoba are saying – children need healthy foods for learning and less sugar in their lunch boxes.

As Canadians, we get most of our sugar intake from sugar-sweetened drinks.  I think the message to drink water or milk instead of juice is catching on.  I see children drinking water and carrying water bottles with them, and this is an excellent habit to develop at an early age.  As a dietitian, I think the best approach with the sugary packaged snack foods is “moderation.”  I know… this is a vague term.  In order to make it more concrete, practice the 80/20 rule.  Aim to eat nutritious foods 80% of the time, and allow for less nutritious foods 20% of the time.  What does this mean?  Include a less healthy “treat” in one out of every five lunches, and one out of every five snack-times.

 Recently Health Canada proposed several evidence-informed guiding principles and recommendations in the consultation process for developing the new Canada Food Guide.  The first recommendation is a regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein-rich foods, especially plant-based sources of protein.  Let’s make this a simple formula for packing a healthy lunch. 

 Are you looking for some healthy lunch ideas?  Check out these websites: