The school year is in full swing, and while you may have had ambitions to pack healthier lunches for you or your kids this season, life is busy and expensive.
Many schools are raising the cost of meals for kids this fall. The USDA wants schools to serve healthier meals, which would come at a higher sticker price for schools and families, leaving communities to balance meeting nutritional standards and budget constraints.
When it comes to health for both kids and adults, here’s your guide to what makes a lunch balanced.
What is the healthiest lunch?
The most nutritious lunch follows the tried-and-true MyPlate guidelines, according to Caroline West Passerrello, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The MyPlate breakdown is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and suggests roughly half of your plate be fruits and vegetables and grains and proteins on the other half. Dairy, like milk, yogurt and cheese, is also recommended with your meal.
Whether you’re a student or an adult, variety on your plate will ensure you have the energy and sustenance to continue throughout your day, West Passerrello says.
Here’s the method she uses with her elementary schooler:
“I pull out a couple of fruits, a couple of grains, a couple of proteins and I just let her pick, she knows she has to pick one from each category,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be this elaborate sandwich or salad or big meal – it can be four separate things that you just like putting together.”
But even more basic than this, West Passrello says the healthiest lunch is “the one that’s eaten.” You know what we’re talking about – the ambitious meal you planned to make before the afternoon slipped away, the turkey sandwich that sat unrefrigerated for a little too long, the new food that didn’t appeal to your taste buds.
Several studies show students with access to free or reduced healthy lunch programs score better on tests than those without. And even for adults, making time to eat lunch can help manage blood sugar levels and maintain satiety, mood and sleep quality, CNN reports.
If you’ve prepared the lunch but forgot to eat it, there’s also the issue of food waste. About 30-40% of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food waste contributes to 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, which still excludes the methane emissions from food waste rotting in landfills, the EPA reports. Some of this occurs at the production and supply chain stages, but it also happens at home.
So when you’re preparing lunch, ask yourself these two questions: Is this something I want and like to eat? Will this be safe in my lunch box?
“You don’t want to pack something for yourself or your kiddos that’s something they’ve never seen before because that’s probably going to lead to more food waste,” West Passerrello says.
You also need to keep food safety in mind, particularly if your lunch involves meat or dairy products, to avoid food poisoning or exposure to other bacteria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacteria can rapidly multiply in food left at room temperature or in the “danger zone” of 40-140 degrees. You should never leave perishable food out for more than two hours or one hour in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees.
“Make sure you either put an ice pack in with it or you’re able to keep it in a refrigerator,” West Passerrello says, adding that a frozen yogurt cup or water bottle can double as an ice pack as it thaws through the day.
You can also opt for a shelf-stable lunch like a classic PB&J and dried fruits or vegetables – anything you can keep in your pantry safely without refrigerating.
“If it’s just that it’s going to sit in somebody’s locker, you could still do something like cherry tomatoes or baby carrots,” West Passerrello says. “But if it’s going to sit out in the sun then you’ve got to really be careful with what you pick.”
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How to make time for lunch
You know eating lunch is important, but how do you make it a priority? West Passerrello says the routine aspect is key: Make it a habit by packing your lunch the evening before or whenever suits your schedule. If you alternate hybrid and remote work, try making two lunches in one go – one to eat now at home and the other to store in the fridge for tomorrow’s office day.
West Passerrello also recommends setting reminders to eat, like a sticky note on your computer.
“A lot of times people working from home also skip lunch even though there’s a whole kitchen and refrigerator right there,” she says.
Easy healthy lunch ideas
You don’t have to pack a complicated, Instagram-worthy meal to get in your nutrients at lunchtime. Work your way through MyPlate’s four plate categories: fruit, vegetables, protein and grains and add some dairy on the side.
For protein and grains, you could go with the classic peanut butter (or sun butter) and jelly or another deli meat sandwich – bonus points if you can sneak in veggies. If you’re sick of sandwiches, try cheese and crackers, make a deli charcuterie (grown-up Lunchables, anyone?), or make an on-the-go pepperoni pizza. Check out the recipe for that lunch idea and more here. Or you could go with West Passerrello’s favorite, salad jars, which encompass all of the MyPlate elements in one meal-prepped container.
For the fruit and vegetable portion, a few of your favorite pieces from the produce drawer will do. If you aren’t able to refrigerate them, West Passerrello recommends dried fruit or veggies, shelf-stable fruit cups or veggie straws or chips, as long as they’re made of vegetables.
Discover more health tips for your daily diet:
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