How do you get your kids a decent lunch at school? You’re over the top with beautiful Bentos, containers, and boxes for all the best snacks and sandwiches you can think of, you’ve tried every healthy power bar, fruit, carrot sticks, rolled up turkey, hummus… You’ve resorted to the junk: Cheddar Bunnies or Goldfish, pretzels, chips, sugary granola bars… and it comes back barely touched at the end of the school day, right? Or you’re buying school lunch, but have no idea what it is, whether your child eats it, or why they come home and melt into tantrums day after day (hunger, maybe?) Here’s five tips to help this go a little better.
1 – Let yourself off the hook – and your kid too. You’re not the problem. Neither is your child. The school is. Lunch is too short, too chaotic, and too impersonal. Incredibly, some children literally don’t get to eat lunch at all, as they spend too much time lining up to get it and finding a table. Here is one example of a school where children actually dumped untouched trays of food in the trash because it was time for recess by the time they’d gotten their lunches – they never got to eat at all. No amount of curriculum is worth this. You can stuff curriculum into kids’ faces all day if you like, but guess what? It won’t work. Because when children are hungry, attention and learning drop. Hmm maybe this is why we hear that US kids are falling behind compared to other countries?
By contrast, check out this story and video about how school lunch is served in France. Imagine how differently children learn to value food, community, self worth, and social interaction, when they get to eat this way. Oh well. We are probably not going to get there anytime soon in the US. But I share this to illustrate how absurd it is to expect children to function well in our version of a school lunch system. It does not engender health, good digestion, or appreciation for food, self, or how to contribute to a positive group experience. Our system is downright competitive, and anxiety provoking, as kids must worry about what they’ll get, when they’ll get it, if they can eat it, how fast, where to sit… and must do it in a cacophony that could make your ears bleed. So give in to the fact that how your child eats at school is something you can’t likely change, at least not this week. Make up for it with family meals at home as often as you can, whether it’s breakfast or evening meals. Having family meals together on a regular basis has been shown to boost kids’ vocabularies, grades, and intakes of nutrient-dense foods.. and it lowers high risk behaviors in teens like drug use and drinking.
2 – Let your child eat what is easy during the school day. Literally, anything is better than nothing. Pack high protein finger foods, starchy snacks (yes, you read that right), and comfy favorites. Don’t worry about the carrots and celery that come home. They’re not going to help much anyway during the busy school day. Your child needs high density food. Their brains use nearly half the total food energy they eat every day, just to be and learn (adult brains use about half that amount). Starchy snacks give fuel quickly and while we can argue all day about why they’re bad, they are better than nothing. Think of it this way: You’re flight was delayed and your stuck in an airport terminal at 4 AM with nothing open for food. You never had dinner the day before or breakfast this morning. But wait: You found some crackers in your purse. Eat them, for God’s sake! Yes, it’s junk, and, it will give you a little help til you get to your destination. It’s not what you’re going to eat every day, but you’re glad to have it in that moment. Likewise, don’t sweat it if your child is eating some low value starchy snacks during the school day sometimes. Avoid processed high sugar or corn syrup snacks – but a blondie brownie (gluten free if necessary), made with strong organic ingredients, coconut sugar or maple syrup instead of cane sugar, and some awesome ghee or coconut oil for a brain boosting fat isn’t at all that bad. If allowed at your kids’ school, throw in some crushed cashews or other safe nut. A dense homemade or store bought bar every day with clean ingredients isn’t all that bad.
3 – Fast finger foods are an obvious help. Expand on the starchy goodies by including some protein and fat rich options, like olives, hard boiled eggs, jerky or meat sticks, or collagen bars like BulletProof, Dr Axe, BonkBreaker, Caveman, or Perfect Bars (some from this brand have peanut). Other bars may source the protein punch from dairy, using whey or casein; you’ll need to skip those for a dairy free child. You might also see soy, rice, hemp, or nuts as protein sources. Scrutinize ingredients to fit your child’s needs. Generally, grass fed collagen is a good protein source that is non-allergenic for most kids. Another great option: Fat bombs, bite size power packed snacks that are easy to make at home with a few ingredients, and are beginning to appear on store shelves in various forms. Here is just one site that offers a cache of 45 fat bomb recipes. Look around the web for more from sites like Paleo Hacks, Paleo Plan, or under names like Paleo Energy Balls. Those recipes use nut butters often; some schools have a zero nut policy while others only limit peanut or have a nut free table. Lastly – macadamia nuts, if allowed at your child’s school, have the highest fat and calorie content of any nut. Even a few nuts give high octane fuel that can make the day’s journey easier. Ten nuts yields about 200 calories. Throw in a few organic, stevia sweetened chocolate chips if you want to make it a treat that skips sugar.
4 – Make the liquids count. Instead of juice pouches or boxes, consider a midday meal replacement power shake that adds fat, protein or micronutrients. Options abound for ready to drink stuff you can pack in your child’s lunch. Orgain drinks are widely available (even at Costco) in both vegan and dairy protein source versions. The vegan version is gluten, dairy, and soy free. I also love Rebble Protein Elixirs. A little pricey, but they are dairy, gluten and soy free, with big protein boosts from pea, sunflower, pumpkin seed, or hemp. They are less sugary, more nutritious, and cleaner than stuff like Boost or Pediasure, which are high corn syrup and low nutrition value with only GMO fed cow casein and GMO soy as the protein sources.
Many kids with severe allergies need an even more specialized product. One example is Splash ready to drink elemental formula for children. Though many in the integrative nutrition communities love to hate this stuff, in certain cases, I have seen it be quite successful for children with feeding difficulties and multiple food allergy. Downside: High cost, but may be covered on insurance for kids with documented multiple food allergy.
You can of course also always make your own smoothie and send it to school in a single serving container, but keep in mind that this makes more work for you, and it may take more steps for your child to eat it than products that come with a straw or easy open cap.
5 – If all else fails and your child is simply not eating lunch, meet with your school principal and teacher to troubleshoot. Ask if you can observe a lunch period, volunteer during lunch, or work with an advocate to observe for you, so your child isn’t seeing you at school to watch lunch (they will most likely behave differently in your presence). Is your child last to get to the table, struggling to know where to sit, klutzy with the tray tasks, overwhelmed by noise, too excited to socialize to eat? Identify what is not working. Solutions might be quieter seating with a lunch bunch rather than in the cafeteria en masse, leaving two minutes sooner to get to cafeteria with a peer, or reliable seating at a regular spot. Further ideas are talking to your principal about aligning recess before instead of after lunch, expanding the lunch period by a few more minutes, or creating conduct rules at lunch for noise or behavior for the whole school. In my son’s elementary school, lunch included clear conduct rules that meant no one left the table until everyone had finished eating and had cleared their trays/lunch sacks and trash. This meant that at the end of the half hour (yes, they had 30 minutes), twelve little angels were usually seated quietly waiting for the signal for the whole table to go out and play. Rather than bench seating or loose chairs, the cafeteria had tables with single circles integral for each little behind, like this. These omitted crowding or jostling for space. Find power in numbers with other parents for these larger changes.
When I was a kid, we actually got bussed home in the middle of the day for lunch. My school did not have a cafeteria. We were picked up, brought home, I had lunch with my mom and siblings, and got back on the bus to go back to school. I had a full half hour to eat once home. I never felt rushed or worried about lunch. It’s hard to believe this is how it used to be in an American public school. Times have changed, budgets are squeezed, moms aren’t home to serve lunch. Maybe someday our school system will reboot how it does lunch time to something more conducive to learning, but until then, give your child these options to at least get through the day on more than fumes – they deserve it!