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What's for Lunch?


What's for Lunch?

Encourage your children to take part in selecting the foods they want to find in their lunchboxes.

Encourage your children to take part in selecting the foods they want to find in their lunchboxes.

Celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver in the UK and Alice Waters in the US are both so disgusted with junk food in schools that they’ve been lobbying their governments to make changes to school lunch programs.

Not just satisfied with getting soda and fatty foods out of school cafeterias, they’re also promoting school gardens so that children can learn about where food comes from and the importance of how it’s grown.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, “The day will come when the progress of nations will be judged not by their military or economic strength…but by the protection that is afforded to the growing minds and bodies of their children.” Improving the quality of food children eat is essential to their growing minds and bodies. With diet-related illnesses such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol showing up in Canadian children, the time for making dietary changes is now.

One of the biggest steps we can take to ensure the health of our younger generation is to get junk food out of schools. What they’re being exposed to now, for the most part, are sugary, refined, processed, and fat- and calorie-laden foods. It is critical to get our children back to the basics of eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein and drinking fresh water.

Spider-Man vs. the Apple

Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, food trends have shown that the media and marketing campaigns have had a huge influence on the types of foods our children want to eat. While recently shopping at my local grocery store, I overheard a very common scenario that illustrates this: a young child was pleading with her father to purchase the sugary, coloured cookies that had a famous comic hero featured on the front of the box. Why wouldn’t this child want these cookies? They looked colourful and attractive and the manufacturer even offered a free prize if the cookies were purchased. Tough competition for an organic apple, isn’t it?

Getting our children away from the lures of advertisers and back to the basics of health involves many arenas of education and action.

Banning Junk Foods

In a few progressive governments the world over, the campaign to improve children’s food is making great strides. For example, following a dedicated campaign, British chef Jamie Oliver has been successful in launching his “Feed Me Better” program, which banned junk foods in school vending machines. Subsequent to his initiative, the UK Department for Education announced that chips, chocolates, and carbonated beverages were to be banned from school cafeterias as part of a national measure to improve the nutritional quality of school meals.

What about school lunch programs in Canada?

Canada does not have a high-profile advocate such as Jamie Oliver, nor does it have federally subsidized school meals. However, there have been some excellent provincial initiatives to get junk foods out of schools. In Ontario, for example, the provincial government required school boards to replace the chips and pop in their elementary-school vending machines with milk, juice, and healthy snacks. In 2005 New Brunswick banned junk food from elementary school cafeterias, vending machines, canteens, and fundraising schemes. The plan also included a phase-out of junk food from high schools over two years. British Columbia is considering similar legislation. Quebec politicians are considering a tax on junk food, and in Quebec, advertising to children under age 13 has been banned since 1980.

Trade You a Carrot?

The Canadian Health Network and Dietitians of Canada have created a “Healthy Lunches to Go” program. This initiative offers parents tips for quickly-made, nutritious, and healthy lunches their children will want to eat. Packing a healthy lunch that also appeals to kids is trickier than it appears; trading and throwing out packed lunch foods is a common expe­ri­ence among many school-aged children.

According to the Canadian Health Network (CHN), children’s packed lunches should meet three criteria: 1. they should be healthy; 2. they should contain foods you know will be eaten by your child; and 3. they should be quick to prepare.

In order to create lunches in a healthy and fun manner, the CHN recommends encouraging your children take part in selecting the foods they want to find in their lunchboxes. Taking your children grocery shopping also allows them to feel like they have a say in what they eat. Having your younger children choose their lunchbox (for example, Sesame Street, Thomas the Train) can also help them feel involved.

In order to make your life as a busy parent easier, the CHN recommends setting up a specific lunch drawer that stores all the “fixings” of a good lunch–containers, plastic wrap, stickers, spoons, and forks. Having a special shelf or designated area in the refrigerator for lunch foods also can help you feel organized.

Growing Their Own

A number of Canadian schools are also now promoting school gardens where students can grow, eat, and appreciate their own food. Teaching children to use their land and food responsibly promotes excellence in environmental learning and sustainability from which we will all benefit.

School Meal Initiatives Across the World

  • In 2004 France passed legislation to ban soft drink and junk foods in vending machines in middle and secondary schools.
  • In Italy 68 percent of school meals are made with organic products.
  • In Rome most of the 140,000 meals served every day to school children include a healthy and organic snack.

Food and Health Facts About Canadian Youth

  • The percentage of overweight 12- to 17-year-olds doubled between 1979 and 2004, and obesity rates tripled among Canadian teens.
  • Seven out of 10 children do not eat the recommended daily minimum of five to nine
    servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
  • More than one-fifth of total calories consumed by four-to 18-year-olds is derived
    from foods high in sugar, fat, and salt.
  • A quarter of Grade 4 students and almost half of Grade 8 students don’t eat breakfast every day.

­Helpful Lunchbox Tips

  • Keep servings small. Include peeled and cut-up fruit and vegetables that are easy to eat.
  • Pack an ice pack or frozen juice box to keep the lunch cold.
  • Stay away from foods that are messy, get mushy, or have a strong smell.
  • Make lunches the night before and store them in the fridge.

Healthy, Quick, and Palate-Pleasing Lunchbox Ideas

  • baby carrots and dip
  • an insulated flask of warm soup
  • turkey, chicken, tuna, or egg sandwich on whole grain bread
  • lettuce, cheese, and avocado wrap
  • apples, pears, plums, and/or Clementine (mandarin) oranges
  • small containers of yogourt
  • nut butters (if allowed in school) with naturally sweetened jam on whole grain bread
  • raisins and/or healthy granola bars


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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD