Back to School with a Bang: Healthy Lunches for Healthy Brains

If the expression “You are what you eat” is true, then we should focus more energy into preparing healthier school lunches for our children.  Whether those meals are prepared in the home or at school, healthy, balanced meals provide much needed fuel for brain functionality and focus.  

There is evidence that unhealthy school lunches lead to increased rates of obesity among children.  Research has shown that “students who are more likely to consume public school lunches rather than other options such as bringing a brown-bag lunch, gain more weight.  There is also evidence that supports a correlation between healthier school lunches and improved test scores.  That being said, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides free or reduced cost lunches to 30.4 million students every day across the US.  An additional 14.6 million students receive breakfast through the NSLP as well.  In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) required the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update their nutrition standards for school lunches for the first time in 15 years.  The HHFKA, which took effect in 2012 requires that school lunches must be “lower in fat, calories and sodium and contain lean proteins, more fruits and vegetables, and whole grains”.  

Considering the number of students who receive the majority of their caloric intake through school meals, these are important gains, although we should continue to strive for healthier options incorporating more local produce and fewer processed or frozen foods.  The new restrictions on calorie content has made many school lunches somewhat unappealing for kids and insubstantial for older children.  Some kids will forgo eating lunch altogether because they simply don’t care for what is being offered.

There is another option: Kids can bring their lunches from home.  Now, I know if you are a busy, working parent, the thought of having to make a balanced meal for each of your children everyday might be super overwhelming.  Teaching your kids to pack their own lunch is a valuable way for you to ensure that they are taking something healthy and palatable with them to school each day.  If your child participates in the NSLP, the cost of buying fresh ingredients to make school lunches at home might seem prohibitive.  Many farmers markets across the state now participate in the Double Up Food Bucks Program, where your SNAP or food stamp dollars can be doubled in order to make fresh, local produce more accessible.  You can use the search function on Good Food Finder to find farmers markets in your area that participate in the Double Up program.  Below you will find a sample menu for a few school lunches that you can prepare with your children.  Because we are in Arizona and we LOVE local, you will see many AZ specific products on the list.  If you can’t find these products in your area, check out Good Food Finder and see what specific goodies are near you.  All of the ingredients can be found at your local farmers markets or any other locally owned grocery store or food co-op.  Many of the items can be prepared ahead of time, say on the weekend and simply packed by your kids each morning before school.  You can mix and match the main and side dishes to keep each day and each meal new and exciting.  

Sample Lunch Box Menu:

Day 1)

Day 3)

*For more information on how to process nopales, head here

**This recipe calls for a basil pesto, but we used amaranth greens instead, find that recipe here!

***Verdologas, a.k.a. purslane, grows wild throughout Arizona.  You can find it at your local farmers market, or you can harvest it yourself!

****For this recipes we used a canary melon as well as a watermelon because both are in season, you can use any melon you can get your hands on!

ConsumersAlyssa Kiefer