Better Brown-Bag Lunches
Lunches you pack for yourself or your family can be healthier than meals purchased away from home, but only if you plan food choices wisely.
Depending on what you pack in lunches for yourself or family members, you may not do better nutritionally than the cafeterias or eateries you're passing up. Studies suggest it's common for kids' packed lunches to be low in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and dairy products.
"Think of the lunch you send with kids as a tool for teaching good nutrition," says Jennifer Sacheck, PhD, an associate professor at Tufts' Friedman School. "Although it may take a little extra thought and effort to pack a nutritious lunch, it's worth it over the longer term - not only for supporting daily energy and good health but also for teaching healthy eating habits that can carry over into adulthood." And keep in mind, what kids see you packing for yourself sets an example for them, too.
A study from Tufts’ Friedman School published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at packed lunches of elementary schoolchildren in eastern Massachusetts. They found that only 27% of packed lunches met at least three of five food group standards followed by the National School Lunch Program. Those standards require providing certain amounts and types of: 1) fruit (excluding juice), 2) vegetables, 3) grains, 4) meat/meat alternates and 5) fluid milk. Tufts’ researchers found that only 11% of the packed lunches contained vegetables, 17% contained dairy foods and 34% contained fruit.
This and other studies have shown kids' lunches often contain less healthful options, including prepackaged snack foods like potato chips and puffed snacks; sugar-sweetened beverages such as fruit punch and sports drinks; prepackaged lunch combinations like salty processed meat and crackers; and desserts like sugar-sweetened fruit snacks, cookies and candy. Such prepackaged foods and treats can leave kids (and adults) short on nutrients.
Little is known about what adults pack in their lunches. But, the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee notes that current eating patterns in the US are too low in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthful dairy products, on average. And they’re too high in refined grains, added sugars and sodium.
Whether packing lunch for yourself or a family member:
- Use MyPlate (above) to help you plan a nutritious, well-balanced meal.
- Choose healthy proteins. Try strips of baked, skinless chicken breast, canned salmon or tuna, cheese, nuts and nut/seed butters (check school policy on peanuts), hardboiled eggs, beans and tofu.
- Opt for whole grains, such as for pasta, breads, tortillas and crackers.
- Always include a vegetable. Almost any cut vegetable can be packed. Healthful dips may encourage trying new veggies.
- Think of fruit as dessert. If you pre-cut fruit like pears and apples, add a few drops of lemon juice to deter browning.
- Skip sugar-sweetened drinks like sodas, fruit drinks, sweetened teas and sports drinks. Pack an insulated water bottle.
Special Tips for Kids’ Lunches:
- Keep it colorful, such as with assorted fruits and veggies. Kids like lots of color.
- Make it fun. Cut healthy foods into fun shapes (with mini cookie cutters) or slice a wrap crosswise into 1-inch pinwheels.
- Involve the kids. For example, ask them to portion foods into reusable containers.
- Give a choice. Ask what they prefer within categories, such as veggies and fruits.
- Keep portions kid-sized. Younger kids tend to prefer smaller amounts of a greater number of foods rather than larger portions of a few foods.