What the school lunch bunch munches fuels learning


By Pauline Kerr

Preparing school lunches these days involves a lot more than throwing a peanut butter sandwich and a can of pop in a back pack.

Laura Needham, public health dietician, and Bissan Ghaith, public health dietetic intern, both with the Grey Bruce Health Unit, explain school lunches are important. They’re what fuels a child’s learning.

According to the health unit, a good school lunch should contain at least three of the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide (fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and alternatives, and meat and alternatives). Cold packs (or a frozen bottle of water) and Thermos containers in an insulated lunch bag should be used to keep foods at safe temperatures.

Ghaith encourages water as a beverage. Fruit juices are too sweet for regular use but can be “sometimes options.” Drinking boxes (100 per cent pure juice, unsweetened) can also be frozen to keep the rest of the food in the lunch bag cold.

Ghaith further stresses the importance of washing fruits and vegetables, washing all containers – including the lunch bag - with soap and warm water, and never reusing food wrappings or lunch leftovers unless they’re “shelf-stable.”

When it comes to food safety, two key things to teach children are to never share lunch items, and to always wash their hands before and after lunch.

Any mention of school lunches raises concerns about allergies, and Needham states the health unit’s take on dealing with them focuses on allergy awareness instead of banning certain foods from the entire school. The health unit’s focus is different from schools, she notes. The health unit’s website suggests parents check with their child’s school regarding policies on what foods may and may not be brought in a lunch.

Supporting children who have allergies is important, she says. Parents have to read labels (the “three check” rule means read once in the store, again when the item is put away, and a third time just before it’s served). Some substances may have different names, and parents who are unsure can call the company.

However, Needham says food bans in schools can create a false sense of security.

“There’s no way to guarantee the entire facility is safe,” she said. “Mistakes can be made.”

A food ban in a kindergarten classroom makes sense, because children at that age aren’t good at washing their hands. But teaching children and staff allergy awareness – the importance of not sharing lunches, and always washing hands – is what the health unit promotes.

Moreover, if less expensive foods are banned, it creates an inequity, Needham said, adding, “Sabrina’s Law (about requiring an anaphylaxis plan in the school for a child who has severe allergic reactions) is not about banning or restricting foods.”

Needham and Ghaith state the health unit offers training for teachers and schools. Food Allergy Ontario and Eat Right Ontario are both good resources and offer meal planning tips for peanut free lunches. Among the suggestions are whole wheat tortillas with hummus and lettuce, and veggie kebabs.

“Anything on a stick appeals to children,” Needham said.

On a positive note, alternative proteins including eggs and fish, which were not part of the traditional school lunch, are a lot more accepted these days, Ghaith states.

“There’s a lot more variety even in high school cafeterias.”

Needham likes the “Bento box” concept – small containers of assorted food.

The stress has to be on “foods that fuel learning” – proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

Other things that parents need to keep in mind when packing school lunches is whether there’s a microwave available, and whether the school has the traditional lunch hour and two short breaks, or a balanced school day with two lunch breaks.

“You need to plan for it,” Needham said. This can include writing on the container whether it’s for the first lunch break or the second.

As a final note, Ghaith and Needham stress the need to keep children hydrated with water or milk, and occasionally 100 per cent unsweetened juice in smaller sized containers. Chocolate milk is another “sometimes” drink. Soy beverages make a good substitute for children who can’t have dairy.

Check the Grey Bruce Health Unit’s website for, “School Lunch Your Kids Will Munch.” It contains a number of ideas for school lunches that are both child-friendly and easy on the pocketbook.