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Well-balanced diet key to great school lunches

Sending a well-balanced lunch containing a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins with your child can help them stay energized and focused while learning at school. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

As students prepare to head back to school, parents may be dreading the battle over school lunches.

According to Meghan West, program manager with Airdrie Food Bank, caregivers may feel frustrated when the food they pack in their child’s backpack takes up permanent residence there, or worse, winds up in the garbage can.

“Things that get sent to school that don’t get eaten [and] end up living in the bottom of the backpack – we can end up wasting a lot of food dollars that way,” she said.

One solution, West said, is involving children in choosing their food. Getting them to help pack lunches can go a long way towards ensuring students are actually eating the food they take to school. Providing “flexibility within a realm that you’re comfortable with, nutrition-wise and budget-wise,” West said, can keep kids interested in their lunch and ensures the food is eaten.

“Something my mom always did for my brother and I when we were growing up [was to] have a number of different snack items on the counter, and we had to pick two of three, or three of five, depending on what they were,” West said. “It was kind of that controlled choice – they were all things  that were good options for us to have, but because we picked them, we were more likely to eat them.”

Bringing a child along to help pick their own lunch food can help keep the student invested in their lunches, West added.

“Initially, that would be a time consuming kind of habit to form with them…but, especially if you get them interested early, then hopefully that’ll pay off later in the school year,” West said.

According to Mikaela Gulliver, a local dietician with Simply for Life, packing a school lunch is important to ensure students have the energy needed to get the most out of their education.

“A well-balanced diet is going to provide them with the energy as well as the minerals and vitamins and all the essential nutrients that will help provide them with the brain power and energy to partake in activities and gain the most out of their learning experience,” she said.

It's difficult to make pronouncements about what parents should and should not pack for their children’s lunches, West said, as tastes and budgets differ. That said, Gulliver recommended packing a balanced meal with a plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and proteins. Packing foods with a variety of colours and textures can keep kids interested in their lunches, as can changing the food items throughout the week. She also said parents should promote water as a drink of choice.

West agreed, adding homemade snacks are often a better option than consuming prepackaged foods that are high in sugar.

“The biggest thing is making sure they’re eating what you send with them, but [also] helping set the tone for them [to] make the healthiest choices that they are willing to eat,” West said.

Parents should also ensure they’re aware of food restrictions in their children’s schools, she noted.

If you’re trying to get a child interested in a new school snack – West cited vegetables as an example – parents can incorporate the food as an after-school or weekend snack to see whether the student will eat it, before it takes up permanent residence in the lunch bag. This helps prevent waste, she said.

West and Gulliver recommend following the Canada Food Guide, available at, when packing your child’s meal. The Airdrie Community Health Centre also has a public health dietician.

West added the Airdrie Food Bank partners with most schools in its catchment area to ensure healthy snacks are on hand for students who don’t have enough to eat.

The Rotary Community Kitchen – a food bank program – will offer a workshop Aug. 27, according to West, focusing on preparing school snacks including granola bars, muffins, breakfast sandwiches and burritos. Contact [email protected] for more information.

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