Have you ever dropped into the school lunchroom to see what "lunch" means at your child's school? If he or she attends a typical American school, you'll likely see less-than-nutritious lunches made up of prepackaged, single-serve items and foods wrapped in disposable baggies, tin foil, and plastic wrap. You'll see trash cans packed with trash, uneaten food, baggies, foil, paper napkins, juice boxes, straws, and more.
In fact, the New York State Department of Conservation has estimated that a child taking a disposable lunch to school generates an average of 67 pounds of trash per school year. Lump that figure together with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey's estimate that 16 percent of children and adolescents ages 6-19 years are overweight, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
But don't despair! Savvy parents and teachers across North America are taking matters into their own hands. They're working tirelessly to implement lunch programs aimed at improving nutrition and reducing waste. It's no secret that children who eat well and exercise regularly experience less fatigue, more energy, and better concentration. They are more fit for sports and other physical activities, and they have lower obesity rates. Waste-free lunch programs not only reduce landfill waste, but also teach children about the importance of environmental stewardship. Want to make a change in your lunchmaking routine? It's much easier than it seems . . .
A home-made lunch may take a bit more planning and an extra ten minutes a day, but given the obvious benefits, it's well worth the time and effort.
What to Pack
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Whole-grain breads, crackers, bagels, muffins, pita, lavash, tortillas, rice, pasta, and cereal instead of white varieties
Beans, nuts, and whole grains for protein instead of meat, eggs, and whole-milk dairy products
Water instead of juice, fruit-flavored drinks, fruit punch, or soda
What to Limit
Fats, especially hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils
When packing lunch this year, try to pack at least one fruit, one vegetable, a whole grain, and a protein. If you don't do so already, check the ingredients label of every food item before you place it in your shopping cart-if you don't like what you see on the list, don't buy it. Involve your children in the decision-making process. The more input they have, the more likely they are to eat what's been packed.
As a first step, sit down with your child and together look at the following list. Ask your child to circle the items he/she would like to eat for lunch. Feel free to add some of your own wholesome ideas.
Dried: apples, apricots, cranberries, dates, mango, mixed fruit, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, prunes, raisins
Fresh: apples, apricots, Asian pears, avocado, bananas, blueberries, cherries, dates, figs, grapefruit, grapes, kiwi, mango, melon, nectarines, orange sections, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, pumpkin, raspberries, squash, strawberries, tomatoes
Raw: bell pepper, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, mushrooms, shelling peas, snap peas, spinach, zucchini
Steamed: asparagus, beets, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, snap peas, soy beans (edmame), spinach, sweet potatoes, yams
Other: mushrooms, sautéed or marinated, eggplant, potatoes-baked, mashed, or pan-fried, seaweed
beans (refried), canned beans (kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, etc.), beef (lean cuts), cheese (lowfat or lite), chicken, cottage cheese (nonfat), eggs, egg salad, hot dogs (tofu or all natural chicken or turkey), nut butters, nuts, pork , salmon (wild-caught), soy cheese, soy sausages, soy yogurt, tofu (fresh or baked), tuna (no more than once a month) , turkey, yogurt (nonfat)
bagels, bread, buckwheat noodles, cereal (unsweetened), corn, couscous, crackers, lavash (flat bread), pasta , pocket bread (pita), polenta, popcorn (air-popped, not microwavable), rice and pilaf, rice cakes, spelt pretzels, tortillas
Stocking Up and Packaging
Packing Waste-free Lunches
Packing a waste-free lunch is easy once you make it part of your daily routine. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
Pack Food in Reusable Containers-Avoid plastic bags, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and prepackaged foods whenever possible.
Use a Refillable Drink Bottle-Consider using a made-to-last water bottle instead of refilling single-use bottles.
Use a Cloth Napkin Instead of Paper-Make or buy a napkin for your child to decorate. This can be a fun family project and will provide your child with a sense of ownership, increasing the chances that the napkin will make it home again.
Pack Reusable Utensils Instead of Disposables-Provide your child with utensils that will make lunch feel like a "real" meal!
The Bottom Line
Home-made lunches are not only more nutritious than their prepackaged counterparts, but they tend to cost less as well. A person taking a disposable lunch to school will spend an average of $4.02 per day or $723.60 per school year. A student who packs a waste-free lunch will spend about $2.65 a day or $477.00 per school year. That equates to a yearly savings of $246.60 per person.
A home-made lunch may take a bit more planning and an extra ten minutes a day, but given the obvious benefits, it's well worth the time and effort. When packing lunches this school year, look for ways to make them nutritious and waste-free.