A big part of student success is the food they eat, experts say. But school districts are doing more and more to provide healthy options that students enjoy eating, and dieticians say there are plenty of things parents can do at home when they put together a brown-bag lunch.
“Feeding children healthy food is an endless struggle for parents. It can be challenging to find healthy food that kids enjoy,” said Lori Granich, a registered dietician with Franciscan St. Margaret Health in Dyer. “Children need the proper nutrition to focus during the school day.”
Instead of reaching for the pre-packaged snacks, juice and potato chips, Granich said it is important to include foods including lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
“Junk foods can leave children feeling sluggish,” Granich said.
She said it is also important to make sure portion size is appropriate for children.
“In our super-sized nation, we are unaware of how much we really need,” she said.
Granich suggests mixing up the lunch offerings to keep kids interested.
Instead of relying on deli meats, use leftover meat from dinner for sandwiches. Or, use a tortilla instead of bread.
And instead of sending high-fat, high-processed chicken nuggets, offer kids grilled chicken with a variety of dipping sauces.
Breakfast as lunch can also be popular if you provide egg salad on a whole grain bagel with a side of fruit.
Monica Rojas, diabetes educator and dietician for Franciscan Medical Specialists, said children are more likely to try new foods if they help prepare them.
“Any time a child participates in cooking or preparation of food, they are more prone to eat it, or at least try it,” she said. “They can help plan their lunches.”
While parents can do a lot by providing a nutritious brown-bag lunch for their kids, the schools are also working hard to provide healthy options.
Julie Boettger, director of food and nutrition services for the School City of Hammond, said lunches provided by the schools are overseen by the USDA, and guidelines for providing healthy lunches change and improve virtually every year.
This year, the government is providing new guidelines for portion sizes and calorie ranges based on grade level, and next year there will be sodium guidelines, as well.
“The nutritional part is mapped out for us, but it might look beautiful and be perfect nutritionally, but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get eaten,” she said.
To find out what is popular in the schools, the district has a rotating meal plan, and each school tracks what meals are selling and what isn’t.
The district also has student advisory groups at the middle school and high school levels to get their input on meals, firsthand.
For example, the groups recently taste-tested a rice bowl, which received unenthusiastic reviews. That will not make it onto the menu.
A revamp of the district’s veggie wrap, however, received more positive reviews.
“The student groups have been a lot of fun for us,” Boettger said. “The students liked to be asked their opinions, and they give us their opinions freely.”
The School City of Hammond also has a partnership with Chef Cyndie Story, who has helped them add new menu items including a salad and a Hawiian burger, Boettger said.
While cafeteria mainstays like hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza will continue to be offered on a limited basis in the cafeterias, the goal is to continually have the menu offerings evolve and move away from the pre-made, heat-and-serve options of years past.
“The students’ diet needs to have variety, so they’re not eating the same thing every day,” Boettger said. “So while we might still offer hamburgers, we don’t offer them every day so they can have something different.”
Rojas said the most important thing is to be a good role model for your child, especially with the growing rate of obesity among children and adults.
“We need to start making changes and teaching healthy eating early on,” Rojas said. “While it might take more effort on our part as a parent to prepare lunches instead of just buying a Lunchable, it really is well worth the effort.”