I talk a lot about lasting energy and “Staying Power” to the families and teens I work with and how food choices and combining food macronutrients can help satisfy active kids longer and keep blood sugars slow and steady throughout the day vs. experiencing peaks and valleys. Here are the key nutrients and macronutrients that I recommend including in school lunches to give your kids a lunch with staying power and lasting energy.
Complex Carbohydrates (Fiber):
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source our body needs, and all carbohydrates break down into glucose. Having a steady flow of glucose during the day helps to fuel our brains and muscles. A child’s brain needs ~ 500 calories worth of glucose daily. I like to think of carbohydrates as either quick acting or long-lasting. Those that are quick acting would come from refined and processed foods such as crackers, potato chips, white bread, sugary cereal, donuts, and waffles. Those carbohydrates that I would consider long-lasting contain fiber and are digested more slowly. Examples would include brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, oatmeal, quinoa, legumes, buckwheat, millet, barley, and popcorn.
Fiber for the lunch box:
Whole grain bread
Whole wheat tortilla (wrap sandwich)
Dried roasted garbanzo beans
Whole wheat pasta salad
The primary job for proteins in the diet is to repair cells and make new ones, also is required for the growth and development of growing children. All proteins break down to the building blocks, amino acids. When we include protein at a meal, it helps slows down digestion since proteins are complex and require enzymes to break down completely before being digested. A school-age child needs 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, so a 50 lbs child needs 50 grams /day. We can get protein in our diets from plant sources such as legumes, seeds, and nuts which have the added benefit of fiber.
Protein sources for the lunchbox:
Hard boiled egg
Nuts; cashews, almonds, pistachios
Seeds; pumpkin or sunflower
Dry roasted garbanzo beans
Cheese and deli meat roll-ups
Nut butter and apple
Leftover BBQ chicken
A healthy diet focuses on mono and polyunsaturated fats. Fats are another important factor for your child’s brains, especially Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Fats delay gastric emptying which slows the rate of digestion. The dietary guidelines recommend including <10% of calories from saturated fats and to limit trans-fats.
Healthy fat choices to include in lunches include:
Avocado or single serve guacamole
Hummus as a dip for veggies or whole wheat pita
Other great choices for protein/fat (these contain Saturated fat)
Hard boiled egg
I encourage families not to have forbidden foods since research shows this only makes the desire for those foods increase. I promote the 80/20 philosophy where 80% of the foods offered are foods that provide lasting energy and staying power. The other 20% can be the fun foods kids enjoy and contribute to overall energy for active children. So put that cookie in the lunch box, knowing it’s part of a balanced diet.
Foods to limit and serve in moderation:
Sugar. The dietary guidelines recommend 10% or less of total calories from added sugar. That is ~45 grams of added sugar limit for most school-age kids (under three years ~25 grams). Hidden sources include soda, juice, granola bar, breakfast cereal, desserts.
Refined and processed carbohydrates: chips, crackers, white bread, white rice.
Trans-fats. Hidden forms of trans-fats can be found in fried fast food, microwave popcorn, crackers, donuts, cakes, frosting.
Juice: The AAP recommends limiting to 4 oz for children over one year. For children over seven years, 8 oz limit.
Overall the best lunch for your kids is the one you know they’ll eat. Let them help you with ideas and keep it fun!