As the new school year approaches, parents have to decide what their children will eat for lunch. Should they help the kids brown bag it or remember to take their lunch money? While this might not seem to be a major issue, it is because the importance of school lunch rises with the rates of childhood obesity, say University of Alabama at Birmingham experts.
The number of obese children and teens in the United States has risen during the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of 2010, about 17 percent of kids ages 2-19 were considered obese, meaning they have a body-mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. The CDC says that makes them susceptible to heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and social discrimination.
“For many, childhood obesity extends into adulthood where these disorders have more impact on their health, so starting early is the key to prevention,” says Stephenie Wallace, M.D., UAB assistant professor of pediatrics and medical director for the Children’s Center for Weight Management at Children’s Hospital (CCWM).
The CCWM is an interdisciplinary clinic for children whose efforts to work with their physicians on weight loss have not been successful; there, Wallace treats children who are at risk for heart problems caused by high cholesterol levels and hypertension.
“School meals can be a big part of the nutrition many children receive during the week,” Wallace says. “Making both school breakfast and lunch meals healthier is one component to preventing obesity, heart disease and diabetes in children.”
|“School meals can be a big part of the nutrition many children receive during the week. Making both school breakfast and lunch meals healthier is one component to preventing obesity, heart disease and diabetes in children."
-Stephenie Wallace, M.D.
So what should kids be eating?
Lindsey Lee, M.A.Ed., R.D., L.D., clinical dietitian with EatRight by UAB Weight Management Services, says children need the nutrients from all food sources, including lean protein, monounsaturated fats, complex carbohydrates from whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruit and vegetables.
Lee says a healthy brown-bag lunch could have the following:
- Fresh, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables – baby-cut carrots, celery sticks, sliced apples, grapes and/or bananas. Canned fruits should be in their own juices, and vegetables should be low sodium.
- Dairy sources – reduced-fat string cheese, cottage cheese, low-fat milk or yogurt.
- Whole grains – 100 percent whole-wheat bread or pasta.
- Lean protein – boneless, skinless turkey and chicken breast, beans, legumes.
- Healthy fats – avocado, peanut butter, almonds and other nuts.
If you want to go classic — sandwich, chips and a drink — Lee says to watch the sodium content of the deli meat, skip the high-fat condiments like mayonnaise and use low-fat choices like mustard.
|“To hydrate kids at the end of a school day prior to practices and after-school events, send them with a bottled water or applesauce. Snacks like nuts, dried fruits and granola bars can be a great source of energy and will ward off cramps and help your child properly re-fuel."
-Lauren Whitt, Ph.D.
She also suggests replacing regular potato chips with the baked kind — or, even better — with a crunchy vegetable. If you think your child will protest a vegetable or fruit, make it more enticing to them by washing and cutting it ahead of time so there’s no work involved in consuming it.
“Parents also should refrain from sending their children to lunch with sugary beverages like sodas and juice; healthier drink choices include water or low-fat milk,” Lee says.
If you can’t pack your child’s lunch, Lee says you can teach them at home how to make healthy food choices and encourage them to do the same at school.
“When eating from the cafeteria, children should be encouraged to choose baked items rather than fried and always incorporate low-fat milk, whole grains and fruits and vegetables,” Lee says.
One last tip: If your kid has an after-school activity, pack a healthy snack to help them avoid the unhealthy choices found in a vending machine, says Lauren Whitt, Ph.D., UAB Wellness coordinator.
“To hydrate kids at the end of a school day prior to practices and after-school events, send them with a bottled water or applesauce,” Whitt says. “Snacks like nuts, dried fruits and granola bars can be a great source of energy and will ward off cramps and help your child properly re-fuel.
“Or refrain from adding a dessert to their lunch and save it as an afterschool snack – which kids typically request – that way they aren’t doubling up on calorie filled sweets,” Whitt suggests.