Good nutrition is one of the most important health factors for growing bodies and brains. Ensuring that your kids are eating the right foods early on will have a significant effect on their health and happiness through adolescence and into adulthood. Many people know this, but the difficulty lies in actually making it happen.
Check out some of the most effective ways to pack a healthy school lunch for your kids.
Rising Obesity Rates
According to the CDC,1 childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, over one-third of all children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese. Obese kids have increased risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and they have increased risks of developing diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems. On top of that, obese kids are likely to grow into obese adults who face increased risks of heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and even cancer.
The Evils of Sugar
One of the biggest food culprits behind rising obesity levels and poor nutrition is sugar, and it’s often harder to detect than you think. You may be shocked to find that often the second or third ingredient in products like ketchup, barbecue sauce, and cereal is sugar, let alone the astronomical levels in the candy and chocolate bars that line our grocery store shelves at just the right height to entice little eyes and hands.
But while all the cards seem to be stacked against us to provide nutritionally robust school lunches for our kids, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. By having a few tricks up your sleeve, you can make healthy, balanced, delicious, fun meals for your kids and still have time to get everything else done.
Leftovers are the perfect place to start. Rather than overeating during dinner or wasting excess food, why not use your leftovers as a staple of your kids’ school lunches? Leftover roast beef and chicken make delicious, filling sandwiches and wraps. Just cut up some fresh tomato and basil, add some green salad leaves and a slice of (non-processed) cheese, and voilà, the main item is done. Make sure to slice your bread as thinly as possible (try a 7-grain, 12-grain, or whole grain rye loaf) and avoid bulky sandwich buns with low nutritional value.
Wraps are a great way to hold messier ingredients. Leftover chili can make an excellent burrito with the addition of some homemade salsa (just mix together chopped tomato, onion, green pepper, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper). Add some freshly chopped red, yellow, or orange bell pepper for a satisfying crunch. Wraps also offer a great way to get in a serving of beans, which kids often avoid when they are served separately (or when they are not drenched in a sugar-based sauce, like the ubiquitous cans of sweet baked beans). When you buy cans of beans, make sure you buy beans with no sauce or other additives.
Adding fresh veggies and herbs is a great way to liven up last night’s meals – your kids may not even realize they’re eating leftovers!
Homemade is Always Better
Reading the nutritional labels on many popular products – particularly canned, jarred, and bottled sauces, spreads, and juices – can feel like staring at a sign written in a language you don’t know. The lists of impossible-to-pronounce additives, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors seem almost comically long on some products you’d think should be pretty straightforward.
Sugars are some of the worst perpetrators to catch because they’re not lumped together under the word “sugar” in ingredient lists. Sugars can all be listed under the following names: cane juice, fruit juice, corn syrup, caramel, barley malt, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, dextrin, maltodextrin, galactose, lactose, diatase, turbinado, and ethyl maltol. That’s a frightening list.
The good news is that you can make things like jams and juices at home quite easily. To me, there is no better drink than freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s worth investing in an electric juicer, especially one that’s only $15, or go for a more advanced version to incorporate a wider variety of fruits and even vegetables. You can mix and match your juices to your tastes, too. Try adding grapefruit, strawberry, and banana. With an endless number of possible combinations, your kids will never get sick of their options! For more details, check out this handy 101 guide to juicing.
To make your own jam, simply add your fruit to a saucepan (this works great with fruits that are no longer fresh and that look a bit past their best-before date) with a bit of water. Stew them over medium heat until you have the consistency you desire. Add a little bit of brown sugar or raw honey to sweeten the mixture – you’ll end up using far less than you find in store-bought varieties.
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