By Colleen Doyle, MS, RD
I read a recent study from a group of Harvard researchers who wanted to determine what foods and/or beverages are most likely to cause that slow and steady weight gain that many of us see over time as we get older - those things we eat or drink that may contribute to the number on our scale inching up ever so slightly year after year.
Interestingly enough, what topped the list were potato chips, potatoes (especially french fries), sugar-sweetened beverages and processed meats (think hot dogs). And that got me thinking about my kids and what they eat at school.
A Front in the War on Childhood Obesity
The nutritional quality of foods and beverages in schools has been a hot debate for quite some time, largely driven by trends in childhood obesity in this country. About 17% of US kids today are obese.
While kids eat plenty of foods outside of school, the foods and beverages available at schools are an important consideration because of the time our kids spend in school. It's been estimated that for some children, 50% of the calories they eat in a day are from school meals.
It's been exciting to see innovative, kid-approved initiatives that are helping to reduce the calories, sugar, sodium, and fat in school meals - initiatives that are bringing salad bars to schools and getting local chefs to work with students to create new and healthier menu options that taste great, for example. Also exciting is recent legislation that is strengthening nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools.
But let's face it - there are still a lot of chips, french fries, sodas, and hot dogs to be found. I'm fine with my kids having those things occasionally, but I for sure don't want them having them every day.
Easy Ideas Kids Will Actually Eat
So I pack a lot of school lunches and snacks. And like many people, I'm regularly trying to come up with a variety of healthy options - things that my kids will actually eat, that they won't get bored with, and that can survive (from a food safety perspective) with insulated lunch bags, freezer packs, and/or a thermos. My kids think I'm a nerd, but I have some 'guiding principles' I go by:
- There will always be at least one fruit and one vegetable
- The grains are mostly whole grains
- Proteins tend to be lean and/or sources of healthy fats
- Dairy products (and peanut butter, for that matter) are low in added sugar.
Here are some of my standbys that I mix and match:
- String cheese or cheese cubes and whole grain crackers
- Hummus and whole wheat pita bread
- Leftover grilled or baked chicken strips with honey mustard for dipping
- Any kind of leftovers, heated and put in a thermos (chili, spaghetti, stir-fry, soup, etc)
- High-fiber, low-sugar cereal, eaten with milk from school. (Look for cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 8 grams of sugar per serving).
Sandwiches and wraps
- Whole wheat tortillas smeared with low-fat refried beans (or filled with black beans and/or leftover rice, if I have some), with salsa for dipping
- Whole wheat tortilla with turkey, cheese, and apple or avocado slices
- Peanut or almond butter sandwich on whole grain bread with banana slices or raisins
Fruits, vegetables and salads
- Whole fruit or fruit slices (dipped in lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown)
- Single portion-sized cups of unsweetened apple sauce or fruit packed in its own juice, without added sugar
- Carrots, pepper strips and celery sticks (sometimes with ranch dressing to dip)
- Edamame (soy beans) and sweet cherry tomatoes
- Celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter and sprinkled with raisins or other dried fruit (cranberries, blueberries)
- Colorful salad greens topped with a variety of cut up vegetables and sometimes dried fruit. Depending on what else I pack, I may also add a protein source, like hard-boiled egg slices, leftover rotisserie chicken, chickpeas or nuts. (I either pack dressing in a container on the side, or put it in the bottom of the salad container and have them shake it to spread the dressing around).
Other "sides" and snacks
- Individual serving-sized packages of low-fat, low-sugar yogurt (look for no more than 20 grams of sugar per 6 ounces; about 12 grams of that is naturally-occurring sugar found in dairy products)
- Baked tortilla chips and salsa
- Trail mix made with cereals, nuts, pretzels, dried fruit, or raisins
- Freeze small bottles of water to help keep your child well hydrated and his/her lunch cool.
- If you pack juice, make sure it's 100% juice (freeze these also to help keep the lunch cool).
Reversing a Troubling Trend
Now the reality is, some days and nights are crazier than others and I may not have - or take! - the time to pack lunches. If there are days when my kids do end up eating hot dogs, pizza, or the like at school, I pay extra attention to be sure their breakfast, dinner, and after-school snacks on those days focus on healthy choices.
Back to that study about foods and beverages that may be contributing to weight gain among adults. Chips, french fries, sodas, hot dogs, bologna and other processed meats are foods that a lot of kids eat on a regular basis.
What we eat isn't the only factor involved in weight control -- how much we eat and how active we are critical. Research suggests that obese kids are likely to become obese adults, putting them at risk of developing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Indeed, it's been suggested that this generation of youth will live shorter and less healthy lifespans than their parents. But that doesn't have to be. We can turn this childhood obesity epidemic around.
And this time of year - the back-to-school time of year - is a great time to be thinking about that. Starting with our kids' lunchboxes.
What about you? What healthy choices do you put in your kids' lunchboxes that they love to eat?
And for more information about school health, including how to implement a wellness policy, click here.
Doyle is director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.