What does your lunch look like? What does your child’s lunch look like?
Takeout? Leftovers? School hot-lunch? Packed from home? Eating out?
Lunch is the one meal that almost never goes from kitchen to plate. It makes pit stops along the way in storage containers, sandwich bags, the fridge, and sometimes the microwave. It is definitely a difficult meal to have good, nutritious food and be conscientious about what is going into your body, let alone worry about how much waste we make with all of that packaging.
With school starting up again, we wanted to give parents some tips for making healthy school lunches possible, especially because students consume up to half their calories for the day at school (1). Of course if you don’t have school age kids, these tips can be helpful for you to pack your own healthy lunch!
In recent years, we have made some important steps forward in improving school lunch. For example, over the past three years, public schools across America have begun to offer more fruits and veggies and meals with less sodium (1).
These steps are great, especially for families that need to take advantage of free lunch programs, but even with fruits and veggies offered there is no guarantee that students will choose these options over a big slice of pizza or the other hot lunch offerings.
School lunches can also create a lot of waste. Certain school districts have been trying to combat this lately, but one way we can eliminate waste for our planet and improve our nutrition for ourselves is to start packing our own lunch! (2) So how can we make a healthy, sustainable option also a convenient option? We’re here to help with a couple ideas.
1. Pack your lunch!
Take a minute the night before to prepare lunch or wake up just a few minutes earlier to put something together. Being prepared and filling lunches with healthy foods can make a big change in your family’s nutrition. When you pack your own lunch for the day you have control over what food is available, and how it is prepared and stored, so you can take your health into your own hands and make some yummy, nutritious choices. If daily food preparation is too much work for your family trying picking a day or two during the week to prepare food in larger quantities.
When packing lunches include:
- Fresh fruits and veggies: Carrots, grape tomatoes, clementines and berries are just a few easy to pack, nutrient dense, and delicious options. Try to fill about half of the lunch box with these food groups, especially vegetables.
- Whole grains: Start training your kids to swap out that white wonder bread for whole grain on sandwiches and include other healthy grains like oatmeal, brown rice, and even plain popcorn!
- Legumes: Peas and beans pack protein and dietary fiber so they are satisfying and will keep the kids full. Black beans, lentils and chickpeas are examples of this group and are great protein options for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian families.
- Protein: Keep the kids energized long after lunch by including proteins like hard-boiled eggs, turkey, and shredded chicken. Proteins provide many vital minerals, B vitamins, and act as building blocks for muscle, bone, and other tissues that are growing fast in school-age kids.
- High quality fat: Avocados, nuts, and cheese add healthy fats that your body needs. A little bit of healthy, natural fat gives your body vitamin E along with essential fatty acids and is a much better choice than processed foods with artificial trans fats.
2. Eliminate the plastic containers.
We all know the dangers of BPA in our plastic Tupperware, water bottles, etc., thanks to it being a hot topic in the media in recent past. Although BPA has been eliminated from most plastic products, it has been replaced with BPS, a plastic that may be just as bad for our health. We just can’t be sure of the safety of any plasticizer. Studies have shown that old, worn containers that have been microwaved are the worst culprits for leaching chemicals (3). No matter how nutritious your meal is, if it has been stored in plastic and possibly even re-heated in a plastic container it may contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and not to mention probably taste a little like plastic too.
Traditionally home lunches are packed in paper bags, or insulated lunch boxes with many plastic baggies, and pre-packaged foods inside. This creates a lot of unnecessary waste and encourages us to eat individually wrapped processed foods rather than yummy fresh fruits, veggies and homemade meals; a habit we’d rather not pass on to our kids.
There are multiple options for plastic alternatives; glass, stainless steel, and aluminum and they each have their own pros and cons (4).
Glass is a wonderful alternative for plastic, although many do have plastic lids. As long as the lids are not touching your food, or being left on during microwaving, your chances of chemical leeching are small. However, leak-proof stainless steel lids are also available and will be more durable over time. Glass is a bit heavier than the other plastic-free options, and can sometimes break when dropped. For those reasons, glass might not be the best option for your small child to carry to school in their backpack. However for you, your older children, or at home, glass can go from oven to table to fridge and you will be able to easily see what leftovers you have.
- Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is a good option because it is so lightweight, and there are many leak-proof options. Stainless lunch boxes are even available that have built-in compartments that will keep food groups separated and help you determine serving sizes for each food group. The downside to stainless steel is that the metal containers are not microwavable or transparent. This isn’t really a problem for kids bring their lunches to school, but if you like to be able to store leftovers in the fridge and then grab them for lunch, glass may be a better option.
Aluminum has a similar look as stainless steel and is also lightweight, however, aluminum reacts with acidic compounds and must be coated to prevent this from occurring. Protective coatings can be an enamel or epoxy layer that may contain as much BPA as an old plastic container. Because of this be sure to distinguish between stainless steel and aluminum
3. Have the kids help
Packing lunch is another great opportunity to talk about nutrition with your kids and help them learn how to create a healthy and well-balanced lunch. If you get a stainless steel lunch box with compartments or something similar, they can help you fill each compartment with different food groups and different colors to create a healthy lunch. Start teaching your child healthy habits they can carry in to adulthood.
If you need ideas for ways to fill up your sustainable lunchbox with healthy and delicious foods take a look at this blog for 40 days of ideas!