Sue Hubbard, M.D.

The Importance of a Healthy Lunch

Now that most school-aged children are back in class, it's a great time to discuss school lunches. I like to ask my patients and their parents about this hot topic. It's interesting to hear what kids like to eat for lunch. Of course, like so many things, there's a lot of variability surrounding school lunch choices.

Elementary school children often enjoy buying lunch, especially when the cafeteria experience is novel. But because the choices are typically not as plentiful in elementary school cafeterias, some kids prefer to the take their lunch. The one thing I find most typical is that the pizza and chicken nugget lunch days are a lot more popular than grilled chicken and vegetable days. Unfortunately, school lunches are not typically the most "healthy" and often loaded with fat.

By the time kids reach middle school and high school, the cafeteria becomes more of a smorgasbord of choices, and the "hot lunch" tray is not the only option. With an array of foods from salads to sandwiches and many snack items, I often hear that the "tween" and teen set pick their favorite foods and fall far short of anything that resembles a well-balanced meal. The combination of a hamburger and fries, or a bagel and yogurt, may stand in for more healthy fare. I rarely hear milk mentioned as the beverage of choice.

By the time teens hit their junior or senior year in high school, many campuses allow students to eat lunch off campus. The "fast food world" awaits them around every corner. It's not unusual for kids in this age group to enjoy a "super sized" combo meal and a large soda. (Most of the girls I see do opt for a "diet" Coke.) This is probably not what most parents would consider a healthy lunch. The word fruit is rarely mentioned.

To start teaching children about healthy eating habits, we need to begin in early elementary school.

Sit down with your child and review the school lunch menu. It might be wise to make a deal that they may buy their lunch two days a week and you'll pack a lunch on the other three days. They can put stars or check marks on the days they want to buy.

When packing a lunch, let your child be involved, while at the same time guiding their choices.

Prepackaged pizza and Lunchables are not good choices. Go with whole grain breads for sandwiches. Use lean sandwich meats. Add some cheese for added calcium. Peanut, almond or cashew butter provides protein, too.

Cut up veggies in clever ways to make them more appealing.

Chips can be baked, and put them in your own sandwich bag. There are many great ways to pack a delicious and healthy lunch, and it's probably cheaper, too!

Dr. Sue Hubbard is a nationally known pediatrician and co-host of "The Kid's Doctor" radio show.


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Health - The Importance of a Healthy Lunch