Packing the Perfect Brown Bag: Can it be done?

Years ago when my children were school age I was surprised by the lack of nutritional value I saw in their classmate’s lunches. I was so proud to be sending what I thought was a healthful, filling and attractive meal… only to be told by another mother that school lunches are a trading commodity and my daughter’s lunch wasn’t selling. Later I found that my son (whom I begged to eat before leaving for school), was consuming the breakfast of another child who didn’t mind sharing while waiting for the school bus. I learned then that social exchange is just as important for a school child as the healthfulness of the meal, which led me to relax (a little!) about meeting the goals of a perfect brown bag and consider my responsibility as a parent.

I applaud those parents who struggle daily to pack meals for their school children. On the surface, it might seem like a simple task that has long been part of being a parent. However, parents who strive to meet the goals of preparing a meal that is healthful, portable, neat, safe without refrigeration, attractive, trendy yet creative, low cost, and fast to prepare and consume (phew) are worthy of recognition.

No wonder shoppers spend hours in the supermarket aisles trying to decide how to meet these lofty goals, returning home exhausted and frustrated. In fact, research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has found, few packed lunches do measure up to the nutritional standards of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The study concluded that school lunches “provide a greater variety of dairy, fruits and vegetables compared with lunches from home.”

For those of us who think they could prepare a more healthful meal than the cafeteria, it may be time to reconsider. The new USDA school meal rules are based on the Institute of Medicine macronutrient recommendations and include significant changes in meal components, serving sizes, and calorie ranges for breakfast and lunch. It may be too soon to know if these changes will mesh with students’ tastes, but we should encourage our children to keep an open mind and not judge others who depend on this meal or simply enjoy it. It is my experience that the social environment of the cafeteria is not always kind, and frequently leads to less-than-healthful mealtime habits.

Looking back on my kids being in school,  I realized that if my children had nutritionally balanced meals most days while at home, they would meet their nutritional needs in the course of a day. They should use the time with classmates to socialize and enjoy trading and learning from others. I eventually gave in and purchased some of the latest fad lunch meals, but these too  proved to be less enticing after the novelty wore off. Finally, I got more input from my child about what they wanted in their brown bag.

This new realization came with responsibility. I reflected on making meals and snacks at home as nutritious as possible for us all. The poster and booklet below are useful visuals to help parents involve their kids in meeting their nutritional needs. I tried to serve as a role model whenever possible, enjoying a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein sources in moderation.

This all seemed to work well until high school, when hopefully the lessons of healthful eating were strongly in place when puberty and independence set in- but that’s another challenge all its own!






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