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A healthy packed lunch more important than you think

A healthy school lunch should provide a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, along with essential vitamins and minerals

In today's fast-paced world, it is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to provide healthy and nutritious meals for their children, especially when they are at school.

With junk food and processed snacks readily available, it is no surprise that obesity rates among children have dramatically risen over the past few decades. However, by making some changes to what our children eat, we can help promote good health and prevent chronic diseases.

A healthy school lunch should provide a balanced mix of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, along with essential vitamins and minerals.

In a 2018 study published in the Journal of School Health, researchers found that students who ate a healthy school lunch had a higher academic performance and better attendance rates compared with those who did not.

Additionally, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour found that children who ate a healthy school lunch were more likely to meet their daily nutrient requirements including calcium, iron, B vitamins and vitamins D and C.

What are the calorie requirements for school-age children?

The number of calories a child needs varies based on their age, gender, and activity level.

According to the USDA's dietary guidelines, a 6 to 8-year-old child should consume between 1,200 and 1,800 calories per day; a 9 to 13-year-old, 1,600 to 2,200 calories; while a 14 to 18-year-old should consume between 2,000 and 3,200 calories per day.

In this case, school lunches should provide between 500 and 600 calories for elementary school students and between 600 and 800 calories for middle and high- school students.

However, not all calories are created equal and it is essential to focus on the quality of the food being consumed rather than the quantity.

Another important aspect of a healthy lunch is the absence of added sugars and excessive sodium. Processed snacks such as potato chips and cookies are often high in these unhealthy ingredients, so replacing them with fresh fruit, wholegrain crackers, and yoghurt can provide a healthier alternative.

Water is also the best choice for hydration as sweet drinks such as soda and fruit juice can be high in calories and lead to weight gain.

What are some ideas for healthy school lunches?

· Veggie burger with whole wheat bun, lettuce, tomato, and avocado

· Whole-wheat wrap with turkey, low fat cheese, lettuce, and tomato

· Brown rice with chicken, mixed vegetables, and low-sodium soy sauce

· Fruit and Greek yoghurt with mixed berries and granola

· Vegetable soup with wholegrain crackers or bread.

How can we achieve that?

Parents can play a crucial role in promoting healthy eating habits at home. By involving children in meal planning and preparation, they can develop a better understanding of the nutritional value of different foods.

They can also encourage their children to make healthier choices by providing fruit and vegetables as snack options.

Schools can play a critical role in promoting healthy eating habits among children by offering nutritious and delicious meal options. Some schools have implemented farm-to-school programmes that provide fresh, locally sourced produce to students. These programmes also support local agriculture. Other schools have implemented cooking classes and nutrition education programmes to teach students about healthy diets and meals preparation.

What are the challenges?

Providing healthy school lunches can be a challenge. One of the biggest obstacles is the cost. Healthy foods tend to be more expensive than processed and packaged foods, which can make it difficult for some families to provide nutritious options on a limited income. This problem is quite complex and requires a multilevel solution – starting in the family budget, to the school meals plan, all the way to government national policies and fiscal allocations.

However, there are some strategies that families could use to ensure that their kids are getting the nutrition they need without breaking the bank. Here are some ideas:

1. Pre-plan meals: planning meals ahead of time can help families avoid last-minute trips to the grocery store, where they may be more likely to purchase expensive convenience foods.

2. Bulk purchases: buying foods in bulk can be a great way to save money on groceries. Non-perishable items such as beans, rice, oats, and pasta are often less expensive when purchased in bulk. Families can also save money by buying meat in bulk and freezing it in fraction sizes.

3. Shop for seasonal produce: purchasing in-season fruits and vegetables is often less expensive and more flavourful than out-of-season produce. In addition, frozen fruits and vegetable can be cheaper than fresh ones and be a great alternative.

4. Use coupons and store discounts.

5. Choose cheaper sources of protein: protein is an essential nutrient for growing children, but it can be expensive. Families can save money by choosing cheaper sources of protein, such as eggs, beans, lentils, and canned fish.

6. Choose whole grains: brown rice, whole wheat pasta and quinoa, are a great source of fibre and other nutrients. They are often less expensive than processed grains, such as white bread and pasta.

7. Home cooking: prepackaged and processed foods are often more expensive than cooking meals from scratch. By cooking and eating meals at home, families can control the ingredients and portion sizes, and save money in the process. Plus, as the popular saying goes: a family that eats together stays together!

Nisrine Atieh is a Boston-based paediatrician and an American board-certified obesity medicine specialist. The information herein is not intended as medical advice nor as a substitute for professional medical opinion. Always seek the advice of your physician

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Published March 14, 2023 at 7:58 am (Updated March 13, 2023 at 6:23 pm)

A healthy packed lunch more important than you think

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