School is in full swing, fall is on the way and it’s a great time to revisit that daily dilemma: What do I pack in my kids’ lunch? And, while I’m at it, what do I pack for myself?
Caiti Nascarella, a certified health coach with PartnerMD in Greenville, says lunch can offer a great opportunity to boost nutrition, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time and effort. A few simple switches can have you and your kids packing a lunch that boosts productivity, reduces snack cravings and tastes great.
“The biggest thing is reducing carbohydrates,” Nascarella says. “We tend to lean on sandwiches, chips, crackers, so reducing carbohydrates is important” not just for our waistline, but for reducing diseases such as diabetes.
“For kids, it’s a different story,” she says. “They can have more carbohydrates, and they might be pickier eaters, but you can still make it fun and make it realistic.”
The old adage “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” applies directly to lunch packing, Nascarella says. That can seem intimidating, but It doesn’t need to be elaborate, and can take just a small investment of time and effort. Plans could include batch cooking on Sunday or simply making a few extra chicken breasts or grains while you’re cooking dinner.
“Whenever you’re cooking your protein, or quinoa, or sweet potatoes, just make extra and keep those in the fridge,” she says. “You can use them in different ways throughout the week.”
One favorite suggestion she offers her patients is creating bowls. If you stash extra chicken and brown rice, for example, then you can create an Italian bowl one day (cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, pesto), then Mexican (avocado, peppers, salsa) and the next day you could go Greek (feta, olives, and roasted red peppers). A Thai bowl might include cilantro, chopped peanuts, a ginger or soy dressing and even kimchi or pickled vegetables if you have some on hand. “Those are great for gut health,” she says.
The beauty of the “bowl” is it’s endless customizations; it can follow any flavor profile and include any protein and vegetable combination. And it can work even if you don’t cook much, because rotisserie chicken and a bag of microwaveable rice work, too.
It might take four to six weeks to get into the habit of lunch prep, and you might have some periods of time where you slack off, but creating this habit can pay big dividends for your health.
For the kids
In an ideal world, kids would learn to love the same proteins and vegetables their parents eat for lunch, but of course, that isn’t always the case. If they don’t like the bowl idea, one easy switch is to use Ezekiel bread for sandwiches. “It’s higher in protein and fiber,” she says, and less processed than many breads on the shelves.
Adding some type of produce can make a big difference in a lunch’s nutritional value, and that could mean a simple salad, baby carrots with hummus or a piece of fruit.
Pasta is a favorite lunch item for adults and kids, and she recommends the pasta made from beans to serve up more fiber and protein. However, “a little pasta in moderation isn’t going to kill us,” she says. “Lean toward the whole wheat variety and watch out for portions – that’s the key.”
If you’re packing a lunch anyway, Nascarella recommends throwing in a snack while you’re at it. Try to grab something that combines a complex carbohydrate with a protein, such as a low-fat cheese stick or a handful of nuts with a piece of fruit. “The idea is to use this pairing to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day,” she says.
“You don’t want to get hangry around 3:00 or 3:30,” she adds. If you have a healthful snack, you’ll not only feel better, but “you won’t end up mindlessly munching on chips, and you can make better choices when you get home.“