ID-10012919It’s autumn and the kids are back in school, but they aren’t the only ones who need healthy, balanced lunches to keep them energized and focused. If the mention of school lunches brings to mind baloney and processed cheese on white bread with a bag of greasy potato chips, a sugary snack cake and can of soda or—even worse!—tasteless institutional food served up by warty old women in hair nets, it’s no wonder people skip the midday meal.

Combine those unappealing images with the other excuses people give for not eating a nutritious noontime meal—no time to pack a lunch; good-for-you fare is too expensive; “healthy” means weird stuff like tofu and bean sprouts—and you see why lunch is a problem.

The truth is, adults and children benefit from eating well, but a balanced breakfast and lunch are especially important for students. Consider these facts:

  • The foods that contribute most to weight gain include french fries, chips, sugary drinks, red and processed meats, sweets, refined grains, fried foods, butter and pure fruit juice, according to a study published in the June 2011 New England Journal of Medicine.
  • The average American drinks one and a half 12-oz cans of soda per day; for men the average daily calories from these beverages is 175 while women take in 94 calories.
  • Projections for obesity estimate that by 2030, half of all Americans will be obese. Currently 35.7 percent of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children are obese, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Overweight children are at risk for physical and psychological health problems such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, gastrointestinal conditions and depression.
  • Children who regularly eat breakfast demonstrate higher testing scores, less hyperactivity and better behavior than those who do not. Schools that upgraded the quality of school lunches found similar results: improved behavior and decreased absenteeism.

Think a healthy, satisfying, flavorful lunch is nothing more than an urban myth? Read on for myth-busting solutions.

Lunch Myth #1: That paper lunch sack means limited options.

Busted: Thermoses, ice packs and insulated containers solve the problem of keeping hot foods warm and cold foods chilled. Carriers and reusable containers come in all shapes and sizes so you can pack everything from salad dressing to sushi. The only thing limiting lunchtime fixings is imagination and preparation.

Lunch Myth #2: I don’t have time to pack lunch.

Busted: Of all the excuses, this is probably the easiest to solve. Again, it will require preparation, creating new routines and sharing accountability. Here is the action plan:

  • Streamline the morning process by either packing lunch the night before or preparing components for quick assembly.
  • At the beginning of the week, portion out components (fruit, veggies and dip, crackers, sliced cheese, pretzels, trail mix, etc.), stock up on individual servings of bottled water or juice and other items such as fruit cups, make and freeze sandwiches (good option for PB&J), clean and slice veggies for salad and sandwiches, put leftovers in microwave-safe containers, etc. During the week, each person, even a kindergartener, can put these items together in less than 45 seconds.
  • Divide and conquer! Involving the kids not only reduces the workload on Mom and Dad, it teaches them how to make good food choices, promotes self sufficiency and empowers them to take control of their eating habits. Time and again, nutrition experts tell parents one of the best ways to encourage a picky eater or introduce new foods is by letting the child participate in the selection and preparation process.

Lunch Myth #3: I don’t have time to calculate whether or not my lunch is healthy.

Busted: Healthy doesn’t mean complicated. Healthy means providing selections from each of the food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. A few other healthy rules of thumb: Portions should be age-appropriate. Fats and sweets should be limited. Look for whole grain products and lean protein. If you’re still stumped, use this handy mix-and-match school lunch planner.

Lunch Myth #4: Healthy foods are too expensive.

Busted: In 2012, researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluated the cost of healthy food as compared to unhealthy food using three different price metrics. In two of three assessments, healthy foods were found to be less expensive than unhealthy foods. You don’t need to shop at specialty stores or buy organic produce to eat healthy. Use the WURL acronym to determine whether or not a food choice qualifies as healthy:

as in whole wheat

as in not prepackaged and not containing artificial ingredients

as in the food item’s natural form

Low fat/sodium/sugar
as in minimal fat, sodium and sugar

Lunch Myth #5: My picky eater won’t eat healthy food.

Busted: Reframe this challenge by identifying your picky eater as a selective eater. Sure, he might prefer chocolate chips cookies to an apple—who doesn’t!—but you may be overlooking healthy foods he does like. Do some investigating to come up with a list of nutritious options for your child and build his lunch around these choices. Another strategy is to find or create healthy versions of his favorite unhealthy foods. While experts encourage parents to introduce their children to a variety of foods, don’t bring this battle to lunchtime. It’s okay if you child has PBJ on whole wheat with strawberry yogurt, a banana and carrot sticks every day.

Lunch Myth #6: Healthy foods are boring.

Busted: It was Ruth Burke who said, “Only boring people get bored.” If you truly want to enjoy a healthy lunch, it takes nothing more than a bit of creativity. Use these prompts to get your creative—and salivary—juices flowing.

SWAP Wheat bread with: pita bread, bagel, whole wheat waffles, corn tortillas or crackers

Iceberg lettuce with: spinach, arugula, romaine, cabbage, butterhead lettuce

Mayo with: hummus, spicy mustard, mashed avocado, tzatziki, ricotta cheese

MIX Combine healthy ingredients to create flavorful sides and entrees such as three bean salad, chili, wraps, pasta salads, flatbread pizzas, veggie dips, etc.
ACCENT Experiment with spices, herbs, flavored oils and vinegars, and other condiments such as grainy mustard or salsa to jazz up lunch. Toss in toasted nuts or dried fruit to layer in flavor and texture. Add richness to foods with a bit of low-fat evaporated milk, yogurt or low-fat sour cream.
SPLURGE Sometimes it takes just the slightest bit of decadence to take a meal from okay to ahhh! Maybe that means spending $5 for out-of-season blackberries or drizzling caramel sauce over banana slices or drinking bottled mineral water with a slice of lime instead of tap water.

Got a favorite healthy brown-bag lunch or strategies for creating healthy lunches? Share your ideas with other readers.

Image courtesy of Felixco, Inc. /