It's common knowledge these days that the standard cafeteria lunch isn't healthy. Even if you missed the thousands of blog posts on the subject, the special reports in magazines like Parents, and didn't see the movie Fed-Up! (which I highly recommend, btw), you likely have heard first-hand from your kids what's being served in the school cafeteria. Or have scanned the online school menu yourself.
So would you be surprised to learn that packed lunches aren't any healthier? Yes, the ones that parents pack for their own children. Researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston documented what's in the lunch boxes of more than 600 grade-schoolers and found that only 27 percent met at least three of the five National School Lunch Program guidelines.
I have to say, I'm not surprised at all. My daughter, who's 8, and my son, 6, come home with uneaten food in their lunch boxes nearly every day: carrots, cucumbers, celery with nut butter, butternut squash soup, grilled chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches, various nuts or dried fruits. ... When my husband and I ask why they didn't eat their lunch, it's one of two reasons: There wasn't enough time (OK, the lunch period is short) or, which my daughter is saying more and more these days: "I'm too embarrassed to eat that."I'm too embarrassed to eat that. This breaks my heart. Not because my husband agonizes over what to pack every morning (thanks, honey), but because I know she likes these foods. She will eat them at home, often gobble them up. But she doesn't want to eat these perfectly normal healthy foods in front of her friends. She's in third grade so fitting in is more important than it used to be. I want to respect that. I had a mother who embarrassed me, after all (who didn't?) So I ask, What can we pack in your lunch then, honey? I dunno, she always says. Just not grownup food. I want, you know. Kid food*.
Kid food, as defined by my kids and likely by yours too, is what you'd expect: PB&J on white bread, pasta and butter, 100 calorie snack packs, little golden fish-shaped crackers that will go unnamed, hyper-sweetened squeezeable yogurts, over-salted crackers with fake cheese, chips, cookies, juice boxes, you get the picture. Pretty much the postcard of What Not to Pack In Your Child's Lunch if nutritionists made postcards. This is what my kids want in their lunch. Because it's what most other kids have in their lunch. I didn't need the Friedman study to learn this; I've already gotten the full report from my jealous children.
My husband and I refuse to back down. We refuse to pack them junk because it's what other kids eat. I'd rather them come home hungry and eat the bowl of apples, oranges, and bananas we have left out (which they do) than eat a bunch of sodium-laced, sweetened processed foods. They get enough of that already on their play dates, at their Girl Scout meetings, at the weekly in-class birthday party, after soccer practice, at the library reading hour. ... I'm not going to send it in for lunch too. There has to be a limit.
Sadly, it seems my husband and I are in the minority of parents who feel nutrition is important. And we feel alone in this fight to raise healthy eaters. The same way my daughter must feel alone when she goes to eat her lunch every day. Like she's a freak because she likes cashews and cucumbers. If you're a parent like me, I'd love to not only hear how you get your children to be proud of their healthy lunches -- but I'd also to know where you live, so my daughter can sit next to yours at lunch tomorrow.
*If I ever am in the same room with the person who coined the term "Kid Food" or who created the first Kids' Menu at a restaurant I'm gonna beat the ... OK; I'll save that for another blog post.
Chandra Turner is the Executive Editor at Parents. She lives in the 'burbs with her two elementary-aged kids and her adorable new puppy, Blue.