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School and Work Lunches Can Be Nutritious, Budget-Friendly and EASY!

By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN

Proper nutrition is the most important tool you can use to take care of yourself and really influence the success and overall wellbeing of your health. With health, all the goals, dreams and daily activities you want to accomplish are a lot easier to navigate. There are several nutritious and budget friendly options to get your child, family, and you off to a fantastic start to each day and help keep you going throughout the day.

Starting the Day Right
Before we get into the specifics, however, let’s revisit how important the right fuel is when we awake from our slumber. It is imperative that you get a healthy start to the day to nourish the body in order to function and learn all the exciting things you will encounter that day. You don’t have to lay out the silver and china or be the short order cook for the morning, but have some healthy options available. Bananas, grapes, apples, peaches, and plums are “on the go” fast items to quickly rinse, fold in a napkin, and munch on the way to the bus stop or in the car on the way to school. Do try to get some protein, fat, and carbohydrate in the breakfast meal though on most days. The balance of necessary macronutrients will set you up for a balanced glucose level, increasing alertness, memory functions, and the ability to concentrate, all while aiding the many functions of a thriving and active body. Some good options are:

• a whole grain cereal, milk or non-dairy substitute, some fresh fruit such as a half cup of blueberries on the cereal or small glass of fresh juice (4 oz., pasteurized).

• a piece of whole wheat toast with peanut butter (made of two ingredients: peanuts and salt), half a banana, and a sprinkle of raisins on top

• or simply toast some whole wheat bread spread with some butter and cinnamon, add a small side of yogurt, and an 8oz. cup of milk (any variety:  1%, skim, rice, almond, soy, hemp, coconut).

The Better Brown Bag
Now back to the task at hand: school lunches.  “Brown bagging it” has changed from when our mother’s packed our lunch. We are exposed to French fries and pizza buffets in some school cafeterias, as well as fast-food chain restaurants or contracted food companies with less than tasty options. Either way, federal regulations require schools to meet certain nutrition guidelines; food service and school administrators do the best they can to make healthy choices within the strict budgetary confinements and regulations they abide by. Colleges and universities are unique in this set of protocols and separate in many ways.

Packing your own lunch allows for more extensive daily choices, a sense of “ownership or buy-in” in your health, and the control you have from choosing what you and your family will be eating. Portion and content can be controlled, resulting in far less waste and a more satisfying experience, while keeping more money in your wallet.

Basic needs: The more fresh ingredients and whole foods, the better. For example, let’s look at a basic lunch and make it over.

Old standby: PB&J on white bread, chips, soda/bottled beverage, applesauce, and cookies.

This lunch can be made much more appetizing, lower in sugar content, and higher in essential nutrients pretty easily and this makeover can work with many different examples. Just look at where you can substitute more nutrient-dense (mostly vitamins, minerals, and healthy macronutrients—think carbohydrate, protein, and fat) and displace others that may be full of sugar, salt, or fat or energy-dense foods.

New and improved:
• In this example, we will simply opt for an all-natural peanut butter (i.e. contains peanuts and salt only), a sugar-free or all-fruit jelly and put it on a whole grain bread (whole grain white is now available). Make sure it is “whole” grain with at least 4g of fiber per slice. How about sprinkling some raisins, dried apples, or dried bananas in the sandwich for another fruit serving?

• Next, replace the chips with whole-wheat crackers and hummus (getting in more, fiber and volume helps with fullness, or satiation) or a low-fat mozzarella cheese stick (more calcium).

• The soda/bottled beverage can make way for low-fat milk (dairy or other variety) or good-old fashioned water; often both are offered in the school commons or convenience store on campus and you can purchase it separately before the meal so it is fresh and cold. Another option would be to flavor 8oz. of water with a 5 calorie Crystal Light or similar sugar-free packet. You could also put some zing in your H20 by dropping in some lemon, orange, and lime slices for flavored water with a bonus of natural vitamins and minerals.

• Next, how about a small apple instead of applesauce? The apple’s high fiber and water content, along with natural sugar will offer more satisfaction and a wider array of nutrients than applesauce will, with less sugar and more stimulating crunchiness!

• Replacing the cookies may be a tough negotiation and a treat is definitely allowed; just know that it can be swapped for a better option or variety while still feeling like a splurge. There are some great healthier cookie options out there now with fiber, whole grains, and other positive benefits, that taste just as yummy as “old standbys” but with less sugar. Another option:  satisfy a sweet tooth by making a trail mix with a small amount each of chocolate chips, raisins, almonds, and sunflower seeds and bypass processed goods altogether. Portioned-control dark chocolate pieces are a great substitute as well. A small 2 oz. piece of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) or three Hershey kisses finishes up the meal with the perfect indulgence.

Many of the aforementioned items may be purchased in bulk and can actually be less expensive per meal than the first standby example used. It will also be better for the environment as you save on packaging (the apple has no container, and the core is biodegradable of course—maybe the school or your neighbor has a compost pile?).

Tools: Invest in a good lunch box or bag that is well insulated and can be washed easily if something spills, along with a reusable water bottle. Blue ice packs can be purchased anywhere in order to keep things cold and safe from bacterial growth for several hours and can be used over and over again.

Think portions and balance in terms of protein sources, carbohydrates (including fruit), and fat. Every human needs an adequate amount of all three to function and thrive. You especially need superior nutrition as you continue striving for all you want to achieve, whether growing from elementary to middle school, mastering high school, going off to college, or starting that dream career. Set yourself up for a healthy and happy life with habits you can repeat regularly for many years to come. Consult a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) in order to identify your specific needs while providing more tools and details that can be helpful and beneficial to you, your family, and friends as well.

Please call 423-794-5520 to schedule an appointment with our registered dietitian.

State of Franklin Healthcare Associate

301 Med Tech Parkway, Johnson City, TN  37604
423-794-5550 |

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