Eating Nutritional Foods Can Help
Children Be at Their Best Academically
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
The start of the school year also means the return of school lunches, and the
choice of brown-bagging or eating in the cafeteria. A nutritionist at Cincinnati
Children’s Hospital Medical Center says that it may seem contrary to perception,
but a lunch from home may be the better choice, nutritionally.
“Lunches served in school cafeterias are not always the best choice and I
recommend that sometimes lunches need to be packed,” says Mary Pat Alfaro, MS,
RD, CNSD, education coordinator in Nutrition Therapy at Cincinnati Children’s.
“Although The Healthy School Lunch Campaign is urging schools to serve more
balanced, lower fat meals, a packed lunch means the parents are in control of
what children eat, including their portion size.”
Nutrition is very important for school children, for many reasons. Multiple
studies have shown that poor nutrition adversely effects school performance and
overall achievement. Improving health and nutrition in undernourished children
is correlated with less absenteeism, more grades completed and better
performance on tests. Good nutrition also improves mental and behavioral
performance. Eating well everyday is good insurance for parents that children
arrive to school ready to learn.
Obesity not only impacts children’s physical health but also psychosocial
health. A study of self reported quality of life in children and adolescents
showed significantly lower emotional, social and school functioning. Prevention
and treatment of obesity is an important goal for improving mental and physical
health for all children. Healthy eating and exercise are important means of
treating and preventing obesity.
“So as we can see, the evidence for providing healthy foods for children can
contribute to a better school year academically, physically and socially,” says
Since finding healthy lunches that are also fun, safe and easy-to-make is a
constant challenge, Alfaro says parents should:
Make It Healthy
• Use the new Food Guide Pyramid to plan children’s lunches. Include at least
two servings from the bread group and one serving from each of the other food
groups for a balanced meal. Remember to go easy on fats and sweets. Check out
www.mypyramid.gov for more recommendations.
• Go for variety to get different nutrients and beat boredom. Try bagels,
English muffins, crackers, pita bread, or tortillas paired with your favorite
spread or sandwich filling.
• Find healthy alternatives to snack chips. Trail mix, flavored rice cakes, pita
chips and homemade tortilla chips can be made easily.
• Pack fruit that is easy to eat. Grapes, strawberries, chunks of melon, apple
wedges, berries and orange sections are all good choices. Include a toothpick
and a dipping sauce made of yogurt or peanut butter for a mini-kabob.
• Make raw vegetables such as baby carrots, celery and bell pepper strips more
appealing and more likely to be eaten by packing them with a container of ranch
dressing, hummus or salsa. Look for individual packages in the produce section.
• Pay close attention to beverages. Drink choices can be overwhelming. Remember
that even 100% fruit juice is loaded with sugar. Try plain or sugar-free
flavored bottled water.
• Experiment with different sandwich fillings. Top children’s peanut butter with
fruit such as raisins, apples, bananas or pineapple instead of the usual jelly.
Roll up a tortilla topped with refried beans, salsa, grated cheese and chopped
lettuce and tomatoes for a lunch box burrito.
Make It Safe
• Wash your hands well with warm, soapy water before preparing a meal.
• Use an insulated bag with a freezer pack to keep cold foods cold. Holding
perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours allows bacteria
to grow and could make the food unsafe to eat.
• Freeze well-wrapped sandwiches at the beginning of the week or the night
before. Pack them in the morning; they will be thawed by lunch. Good “freezers”
include peanut butter, cheese spreads and cooked meats. Bad “freezers” are
sandwiches made with mayonnaise, yogurt, raw vegetables and eggs.
• Store your sandwich bread in the freezer. Using frozen bread to make your
sandwich in the morning will help keep your sandwich filling cold until lunch.
• Freeze juice boxes, water bottles or yogurt cartons. Wrap in foil and use as
an ice pack in the lunch box.
Make It Fun
• Involve your children in planning and preparing lunches. Provide some choices
and let them decide what to pack that day. Let them help pack the lunch,
especially items that can be packed the night before.
• For younger children, cut sandwiches into various shapes using cookie cutters.
Use smaller cutters to make a sandwich puzzle.
• Make a homemade happy meal by including a little surprise toy, special note or
• Make your own “lunchable” using a divided plastic container.
Make It Easy
• Keep lunch-making supplies together in one place in the kitchen. Include lunch
bags, sandwich bags, thermoses, storage containers, plastic silver wear and any
special food items such as individual cans of fruit or granola bars.
• Pack your children’s lunches the night before so you can avoid that early
• Write down lunch menu ideas for the week and post it in the kitchen. After
planning three to four weeks worth you can rotate the menus throughout the year.
When Buying Lunch Is Inevitable
• Encourage your child to choose lowfat white milk or water to drink. Calories
and sugar in chocolate milk, juices and pop add up quickly.
• When school lunch menus are printed in advance, help children decide on a
balanced lunch before leaving the house.
• Encourage children to choose green vegetables and fruits with the entrée.
Pizza and chicken fingers are okay occasionally as long as they are balanced.