Now that school is in full swing, I thought it would be valuable to check the nutrition in foods we send our children with to school. At my children’s school there is no lunch program, so parents and students are responsible for packing lunches each day. Below are five different lunches belonging to children in grades 2-5. The data analysis was based on the nutritional needs of a very active 9-year-old male, 65 pounds and 4’5” tall.
Sack Lunch Analyses
Peanut butter & Jelly Sandwich with Apple slices, Cracker Jacks and Juice Box
Of the 2080 recommended calories for the day, this lunch provided a third of the calories for the day. This is great. However, the carbohydrate calories provided by this lunch alone is sufficient for the entire day.
Remember, the nutrients represented above are for just the lunch alone. Thus, there are still two meals of the day which will help fill in the gaps for particular nutrients. Breakfast and dinner will need to provide all of the Vitamins B12, B6, A, D, and E, and Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Zinc because they are all below 30% of what the child needs for the day.
This meal’s pyramid is lop-sided. Replacing the Cracker Jacks with a serving of baby carrots and a cheese stick would balance the pyramid, reduce the added sugar intake, and provide most of the vitamins/minerals listed above which are lacking. Also, 15 minutes in the sun will cure the vitamin D deficiency shown.
Lunch #2 (Gluten-Free)
Egg Wrapped in Ham, Hummus with Carrots, plain Yogurt with Grapes
This lunch has almost as many calories as Lunch #1. However, it provides a better balance of protein, fat, and carbs.
Look at all those vitamins and minerals! For breakfast and dinner, this student will need to have some extra niacin, vitamin D and vitamin E which is easily done by eating a serving of peanut butter, fortified milk (or playing in the sun), and a tablespoon of dressing on their dinner salad, respectively.
A child who eats gluten-free may sometimes struggle to eat as many grains as they should. There are many wheat-free grains the child may still enjoy. I would suggest oatmeal or fortified dry rice cereal for breakfast and quinoa or rice for dinner to balance out this diet.
Pizza Rolls and Grapes
Just looking at the macronutrient ranges of carbs, protein and fats, this lunch appears balanced. Other meals and snacks will have to make up for lack of calories.
With a little more data, we can see that what appeared to be a balanced lunch is actually not providing sufficient nutrition for a growing child. The only nutrition this meal provides is a couple B vitamins which likely came from the vitamin-fortified flour in the pizza crust. The grapes provided some vitamin C and fiber and a teensy bit of folate and vitamin A, but this child will need extra nutrition from additional snacks and meals in order to balance out their day.
Although the child is getting two servings of grains, the pizza rolls are not made of whole grains. It is recommended that half of the grains in a daily diet be whole. (Look for the words: 100% Whole on the label.) To balance out this lunch, I would add a serving of vegetables—red bell pepper slices, snap peas, carrots, cherry tomatoes or cucumbers to name a few ideas. Add a plain yogurt-based ranch dip for dipping the veggies and suddenly this meal offers well-rounded nutrition.
“Cup of Noodles”
Don’t be surprised if your child is completely famished upon returning from school if all they ate for lunch was a “Cup of Noodles.” Not only are there very few calories in it, but there is next to no nutrition in it either. I understand how convenient it is to slip a pre-made cup of microwavable food into your child’s bag and send them out the door—sometimes, it’s just one of those mornings! However, it is a major disservice to your child to nourish them with empty calories such as this.
I was actually quite surprised at how much protein is in a “Cup of Noodles” and how little carbohydrate. When I checked out the label of ingredients, I realized that the protein comes from the freeze-dried bits of chicken. The rest of the noodle is made out of white flour and lots of chemicals. Here’s the label:
If you are considering eating any packaged food item which has more than 10 ingredients, and you can’t pronounce half of them, it’s probably best to eat that food very seldom.
It appears that the noodles and freeze-dried bits of chicken in the “Cup of Noodles” isn’t even enough to constitute one serving of pasta or poultry. Thus, this lunch’s food pyramid is: empty.
White Rice, Homemade Beans, Cheese, Vegetable Skewers, Grapes, Cheddar Bunnies
This meal sits just right at 32% of the daily calories needed for an active elementary school child. I’m not concerned about the range for carbs, proteins or fats since this is just one of several meals and snacks for the child.
Check out all those vitamins and minerals in this nutrient-rich meal!
Additional meals and snacks should provide milk or cheese and a serving or two of meat or lentils to balance out the day.
The Take-Away Message
It is important to be mindful of the balance inside of our child’s lunchbox. Most likely, we could all do better including whole grains and fresh vegetables. It’s perfectly fine to include a treat now and then, but be aware that it is the first and sometimes the majority of what your child will actually eat out of their lunchbox. I am not suggesting that parents obsess over their student’s nutrition, but simply provide meals containing unprocessed food items from at least 3 of the 5 food groups. We are doing our children a disservice when we send them to school with too many sugary snacks and drinks which give them a sugar high followed by a crash. It is too challenging for them to focus on schoolwork. Your child’s teacher will thank you for providing a lunch which helps your student behave better in class and concentrate longer on their work.