Lunch Box Breakdown

With the start of another school year comes the return of school lunches. The National takes a closer look at what parents are putting in their children's lunch boxes, how nutritious those lunches really are, and how to make lunch healthier.

10 Steps to Improving the Food at Your Child's School

Prepared by Dr. Paul Veugelers,  School of Public Health, University of Alberta

Remember: You are not alone. Over 93% of parents have indicated that they are supportive of physical activity and healthy eating policies in schools; so don’t be afraid to start some conversations.

1. Start by serving your children healthy food at home. Begin each day with a nutritious breakfast for your family. Try to include at least one food choice from each of the four food groups. Focus on whole grain products, fruits, vegetables as well as a variety of products from the milk and alternatives food groups. Avoid items prepared with added fat, sugar or salt. The meat and alternatives food group is also a very important part of a healthy, balanced meal and will keep your children full until lunch. Include an egg, peanut butter, nuts or other protein-dense foods as part of a healthy breakfast. If you live in the area, try walking your child to school. If this isn’t possible, park your car a few blocks away so you can both get some fresh air before the school/work day starts.


2. Get your children involved in what they eat. Pack a healthy lunch with help from your child. If they are involved in the choices, you have a better chance of them eating and enjoying their lunch. Short on time? Pack lunches the night before and store in the fridge. Not sure what to pack? Click here for some great lunch ideas.   


3. Speak with your child’s teacher about how important healthy eating is in their classroom. Suggest fun and easy ideas such as stickers and stamps instead of food for rewards. You also could offer to help make an eating area that is clean and comfortable, and that features healthy eating messages. Help in any way you can to assist in making the healthy choice the easy choice. For example, support daily physical activity by organizing a walking club, or help grow a garden in the classroom.


4. Talk to the school principal and find out what healthy eating initiatives are happening at the school and if there is a school nutrition policy in place. These policies usually address events that involve the whole school, for example: school dances, track meets, vending machines, fundraising efforts and school cafeterias. Be supportive of all work being done and see if there is more to do.


5. Get involved. Join the parent council, help with hot lunches, volunteer at school events, offer to organize a breakfast program. There are many grants available that can help fund programs like this. 


6. Seek advice by going to the healthy school experts in your province. You can find experts in your province by visiting the Joint Consortium for School Health Website. This website will also lead you to comprehensive school health information and your province’s nutrition guidelines or policy.


7. Do your homework. Find out what is already happening in your school district, region or province. What are the standards set by your school board?  Is there a healthy school policy? How is it being implemented? Are their support materials? Most school boards post this information on their websites and governments usually have sites that can direct you to school nutrition resources and policies. 


8. Know your stuff when it comes to school nutrition. There is a great deal of inaccurate information out there, so make sure you are going to the correct source.


9. View the APPLE Schools video and the resources posted on the website for ideas on things you can do in the school community.


10. Be patient; change takes time. Do not be discouraged if people do not join your discussions readily. Start with small changes, for example, serving nutritious snacks at parent council meetings or serving cheese and veggie pizza with a whole grain crust and a serving of milk for a hot lunch alternative. People need time to process change and not be threatened by suggestions. Keep trying, as the end result is worth it. 

8 Tips to Healthier Eating from Dr. Charlene Elliot

DO check the serving size when comparing the nutrition profile in similar products

Nutrition facts tables currently do not require standardized serving sizes for comparable foods. Those small packages of fruit snacks may be 18g, 25g, 26g or 28g.  Portable yogurts might be in 60g or 100g.  The fact that there is not one consistent serving size for comparable foods makes it difficult to compare across products. What might appear to be the healthier choice may not actually be the healthier choice once standardized serving sizes are applied.

DO be cautious about front of pack claims

Some products draw attention to a key nutrient to make their food seem, as a whole, more healthy. The key is to look at the whole picture when it comes to nutritional content.

DO watch out for hidden sugars

Food manufacturers are required to list product ingredients by weight, highest to lowest.  By giving the sugars contained in a product different names, the percentage for each sugar can appear low on the list, even though the total sugar content is high.  Here’s a list of the various kinds of sugars you will see in food products.

DON’T evaluate products solely in terms of calories

Low calorie products are not, by definition, healthy choices or health-promoting choices. Diet pop, for instance, will not make people fat, but it certainly isn’t something we should consume more of in order to improve our health.

DO consider the daily intake values marked on food products

Often the percentage of daily intake levels listed are based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day adult diet, so the daily percentages listed on the label are actually much higher for children, who require far fewer calories a day.

DON’T fall into the trap of "ALL food must be fun"

What an odd requirement to demand of food!  Equally problematic is the idea, which is promoted in some advertising campaigns, that children will not eat food if they know it's "good for them." Books like the "Sneaky Chef" cookbook seem to reinforce the idea that fruits and vegetables need to be "snuck" into children's diets. Why not make unprocessed foods desirable in their own right?  

DO consider the environment

Excessive packaging seems to pervade many child-oriented food products. Boxes filled with individually packaged smaller products create unnecessary garbage that ends up in the landfill.

DO consider the ethics of marketing to children

The health of our children equally has to do with their well-being.  This makes it important to consider some of the issues - beyond calories - that pertain to child-oriented food marketing.  Many of the child-oriented products rely on cross merchandizing claims.  Healthy or not, the fact that edibles are often shaped and themed on popular children’s cartoons, movies, toys and other entertainment means that children are being targeted, and encouraged to pester their parents for particular foodstuffs.  Personally, I am hesitant to support a commercial strategy based on ‘pester power’, regardless of the health qualities of the food.