Nutrition Basics for Kids and Healthy Lunch Ideas
Between busy schedules, confusing nutrition news, and kids’ unique food preferences (aka, picky eaters), there are plenty of challenges parents face when deciding what to feed their school-aged children.
Whether your child eats a meal provided by the school or brings food from home, the meals your children eat away from home may leave you wondering if your child is eating too much, too little, or whether they’re getting enough of all their essential nutrients.
The midday meal is especially important for kids since a balanced lunch provides the necessary fuel to power them through their school day and extracurricular activities.
Eating The Rainbow
Eating a wide variety of foods ensures that kids get enough of these and other necessary nutrients to support optimal functioning and growth of their bodies – and their minds!
A healthy, balanced meal plan for kids should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean proteins, and heart-healthy unsaturated fats.
Added sugars, refined grains, processed foods, and foods high in saturated or trans fats should be limited to occasional meals and snacks versus everyday staples.
Health experts are weighing in on the common nutritional deficiencies in children, and suggest that plant-based foods enhance immunity and offer protection from chronic illness, so kids need to include more fruits and vegetables in their diets.
Not only do these fill up little tummies, help to reduce cravings for overly sweet or salty processed foods, but whole foods, in general, offer up high-density nutrition: that’s when a food has lots of immunity-boosting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants — with relatively little calories, sugar, or fat.
Orange Naturals Nutrition Expert, Jenna Mangan, CNP recommends filling half your child’s plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal.
Picking Your Battles With Picky Eaters
As any parent of a picky eater can attest, getting enough of a variety of foods in the diet can be hard to achieve. Children can refuse to try new foods, some only want to eat the same foods day after day, and there are those who claim they don’t like entire food groups – like vegetables!
Some of the best methods for “counteracting” picky eaters are regularly offering healthy foods (try, try, try again), modeling healthy eating behaviours at home, and using meals as teachable moments – involving kids during meal preparation, for example.
Ideas for a more balanced lunch box:
The easiest way to create well-rounded school lunches is to send them with a packed lunch, and there are many options besides the old sandwich standby you can offer.
Always include colourful fruits and veggies to help make meals more visually appealing. If budget allows, purchase pre-sliced fruits and vegetables to cut down on prep time at home.
Try these easy, produce packable’s:
- Baby carrots, celery sticks, cucumber slices, bell peppers, or snap peas with hummus, salsa, seed butter (if the school allows), or ranch dressing for dipping.
- Sliced apples, kiwi, oranges, banana, melon, berries, and grapes or toss a few together and make fruit salad. Whole or dried fruit offers more fibre and less sugar than fruit juice.
- Include good sources of protein and carbohydrates with lunch — they’re filling and provide your child with energy to stay on their game. Choose bread, crackers, and granola bars without added sugars and that list whole grains or better yet – sprouted grains as the first ingredient.
Try these high-quality lean protein sources:
- Plain yogurt with fruit or granola to mix in
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Chicken or turkey with cheese and vegetables in a whole grain wrap
- Hummus with vegetables and whole grain pita bread
- Natural cheese sticks with whole grain crackers
- Granola or whole food energy bars
- Kids Multi
- Prepare chicken or tuna salad with whole milk Greek yogurt (for extra protein) or mashed avocado (a healthy fat) in place of the typical commercially-prepared mayonnaise. Mix in extra veggies, like finely chopped cucumber or celery for a satisfying, kid-pleasing crunch.
Try these healthier healthy fat options:
- Natural nut butter that contains just nuts (plus natural salt as an option) – but no added sugar, oil or fillers
- Olives, raw unsalted nuts & seeds, avocado/guacamole
- Trail mix – combine your child’s favorite nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and a few chocolate chips for an extra treat!
Your child will be more excited about their lunches when you get them involved too. Let kids pick out a lunchbox they love and let them help shop for and prepare their own lunches – yes, even the younger ones!
This also helps them to develop a more positive relationship with food — something that many adults struggle with.
Divided food storage containers with individual compartments (similar to a bento box) can help you and your child remember to pack fruit, veggies, protein, whole grains, and some healthy fat and/or a treat. Plus, they’re reusable and more environmentally friendly.
While it’s best to get as many of your nutrients directly from food as possible, it can also be beneficial to round out your child’s daily nutrition with a multivitamin, probiotic, and omega-3 (EPA + DHA) supplement.
Health Canada recommends a daily maximum of 1500 mg of combined EPA and DHA for children aged 1 to 8.
If you’re concerned that your child may be missing key nutrients or is experiencing other food-related issues, speak with your Naturopath for individualized recommendations.