Kids School Lunch with Zevia Kidz Fruit Punch

Building a Balanced School Lunch: How to Maximize Nutrition Without All The Sugar

Back to school time can be both an exciting and overwhelming time for many parents. When it comes to packing lunches, you probably want to do what you can to ensure your child gets the right nutrition without too much sugar, while also making the meals yummy and desirable to them. While this may seem like a tricky balance, making simple adjustments can have a big impact on your child’s health. Keep reading to learn more! 

What does a balanced lunch look like?
Creating a nutritious lunch can have a big impact on your child’s health in both the short and long term. Following a nutrient-dense diet is linked to healthier weights, reduced risk of developing chronic diseases, a stronger immune system, and more. While creating a balanced lunch may take some adjustments, it doesn’t have to be complicated. 

Here are some guidelines for making balanced school lunches:

Include all 3 Macronutrients 
It’s important to include a mixture of high fiber carbohydrates, lean proteins and unsaturated fats in every meal and snack. This balance will help your child feel fuller for longer, will help stabilize their energy and blood sugar levels, and will give them the widest variety of nutrients.

Examples of good food choices for each macronutrient include:

  • High fiber carbs: whole grains like whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta and tortillas, quinoa, and oats, as well as beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables.
  • Lean proteins- eggs, chicken breast, lean turkey or ham, or plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, and lentils.
  • Healthy fats- nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocados, hummus, tahini, and olive oil
Maximize variety

Try to expand on your child’s favorites by including new foods or versions of common foods often. This can help them become less picky and give them better nutrition by exposing them to a wider variety of nutrients. Having your child pick out which new food they would like to try at the grocery store, getting them involved in the kitchen during prep time, and pairing a new food with something they already love can all help make them be more willing to accept new foods. 

Limit Processed Foods

American children and adolescents get two-thirds of their calories from ultra-processed foods. These foods tend to be lower in nutrients and often contain preservatives and artificial ingredients that can interfere with good health. 

When shopping for ingredients and snacks, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of reading food labels and trying to choose items that have only a few recognizable ingredients and that are in their most natural state as possible. 

Cut Back on Sugar

Too much added sugar is linked to a less healthy weight, increased disease risk, and dental problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 do not have any added sugars, and those 2 and older consume no more than 25g daily. 

Cutting back on sugar can understandably be difficult to implement, so keep reading below for helpful tips.

How to enjoy sweet treats without too much sugar 
Sugar and sweet treats don’t have to be completely off-limits for you or your child, but it is a good idea to be mindful of how much they consume. It’s important to find balance so that kids don’t feel deprived or crave sugar all the time.

Try following the guidelines below to help your child reduce their sugar intake while still enjoying the yummy goodies they love.

Focus on 100% Fruit

Fruit has the benefit of being naturally sweet, while also providing kids with important nutrients like vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and fiber to support their rapidly growing minds and body. 

  • ex: whole pieces of fruit, pure fruit leathers, and dried fruit
Limit Sugary Beverages

Sugary beverages are the main source of added sugars in American diets. These include things like sodas, sweetened fruit drinks, teas, and sports drinks, which should all be limited or avoided. Many consumers aim to avoid beverages made with artificial sweeteners as well, such as diet drinks. 

Thankfully, there are many better beverage options for your child, including:

  • Water: Both filtered and sparkling water are great options for your child
  • Unsweetened cow’s milk, or plant-based milk: like almond, soy, and coconut milk
  • 100% fruit juice: Juice is much healthier than soda, but since it is still a concentrated form of sugar, it is recommended to limit juice to <6 oz/day for kids 1-6 years of age and no more than 8oz/day for those aged 7-18. 
  • Zevia is a great alternative to soda for many reasons. It contains zero calories and no artificial sweeteners, or colors. It is also free of the top 8 allergens and is always Vegan, Kosher, Gluten-Free, and Non-GMO Project Verified. It comes in a variety of delicious flavors and even has a kids line that your child is sure to love. 
Portion Out Desserts

It’s okay to include a dessert with your child’s lunch, but try to keep the portions small. Consider reducing the portion size by half if they’re used to eating large amounts of sweet treats. 

Include Treats Alongside Other Healthy Foods
Desserts don’t have to be limited to things like cookies, pastries, or candy. Treats like dark-chocolate covered nuts or berries, or trail mix with little bits of dried fruit or chocolate chips can also provide a yummy appeal that your kids love while providing better nutritional benefits. 

Gradually Cut Back
If your child is used to eating a lot of sugar or sweet things, it can be difficult to adjust to drastic changes. Try making gradual changes over the course of a few weeks or months, and explain to your child why these changes are important. 

In Summary
Your child’s lunch can help provide important nutrients that support their growth and development while also protecting them from disease and illness. Making simple swaps can boost the nutrient quality of their meals and give them delicious things to eat without too much sugar. Try to have fun with making lunches and give yourself credit for any and all healthy choices. 

Written by: Joanna Foley, RD

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