If schools and parents received report cards on the lunches they're serving kids, most wouldn't receive a passing score.
Many lunches, whether served at school or brought from home, are made with bleached flour, artificial sweeteners, food coloring, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial preservatives, hormones and trans fats.
Studies have shown that these ingredients are linked to weight gain, defects in insulin and lipid metabolism, hyperactivity, increased risk of tumors, cancer, digestive issues, asthma, premature heart attacks, diabetes, and overexposure and resistance to antibiotics.
Some of these ingredients are even banned in other countries.
As a parent, what can you do to keep your child healthy? Life Time - The Healthy Way of Life Company, suggests checking in with your child's school to learn where foods are sourced, the nutritional values and ingredients in order to make informed decisions.
“The more highly processed foods are, the more likely they are to contain the seven unsavory ingredients. Meaning they are foods it is best to find alternatives for,” says Laura Burbank, a registered dietitian with the Life Time Foundation.
Until changes are made, Burbank advises actively engaging kids, starting when they're young, in packing lunch at home.
“Getting kids involved in packing their lunches makes them more likely to eat and enjoy them,” says Burbank. "They feel helpful and they're learning along the way."
She says it is important to include a protein, whole grains, fresh fruit, vegetables and healthy fats with every meal, and provides some ideas below.
Lunch box option one:
• Lunch: turkey or ham sandwich with avocado and spinach on whole grain bread. Look for meat that is free of hormones, antibiotics, nitrates, artificial preservatives and other additives.
• Snack: orange slices and string cheese.
Lunch box option two:
• Lunch: grilled chicken breast, avocado and roasted bell pepper or shredded carrots in a whole grain pita with a Greek yogurt based dressing or pesto.
• Snack: apple slices and almond butter.
If your childs school has a strict nut-free lunchroom guideline, include Greek yogurt with vanilla and/or honey.
Lunch box option three:
• Lunch: a wholesome PB&J made with almond butter and 100 percent fruit preserves on whole grain bread.
• Snack: hard boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers with Greek yogurt based vegetable dipping sauce, or pita chips and peppers with hummus.
Healthier lunch room choices:
Burbank notes that sometimes making lunch at home is not a viable option.
If that is the case, she suggests parents discuss healthy lunch room options with their kids, as studies have shown that in addition to nutritional benefits, healthier diets also associate with higher academic performance.
Things to consider include:
• Choose a salad when available to include more vegetables in the meal.
• Choose white milk over chocolate milk to cut down on sugar intake.
• Choose 1 percent milk over skim or non-fat milk, the higher fat content is more satiating.
• Choose whole grain pasta over bread which may contain bleached flour and preservatives.
• Choose red pasta sauce (vegetable-based) over cream sauce (high in fat).
• Choose fresh fruit over canned fruit which may contain artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners.
Parents should also be encouraged to talk to the nutrition directors and cafeteria managers about reducing the amount artificial items in the school meals.