February 2009: Lunch Makeover

Preparing for this month’s newsletter, Lunch makeover, has led me down some interesting paths of discovery.  I learned a lot and also had some great fun.  My search was for the best available nutrition for kids, whether you decide to send your children with packed lunches or opt to buy them.  I’m looking forward to sharing what I learned with you!

My first stop was our own school district’s business office, where I had a great meeting with an administrator who had led our elementary school (and the district’s middle school) through a complete overhaul of the lunch program a couple of years ago.  The objectives of this overhaul (among others) were to offer healthier options, provide differentiation between grade levels for portion sizes, and introduce new lunch items.  Improvements implemented included major steps such as installing salad bars and steamers and eliminating pre-cooked and deep fried foods.  I was told that lunches transitioned from “kids eating curly fries and nachos” to “whole grain pizzas and freshly prepared pastas”.  I agree that this was a heroic endeavor, and I am proud of our school’s accomplishments, but will I let my kids buy their lunch there?….

…My next stop was a meeting with the food management company’s liaison to our school (our school, like many, outsources its lunch program to a large service provider) and a visit to the school kitchen.  There I saw the food being prepared and was invited to take a look through the binder which listed all of the ingredients for each entrée and a la carte item.  Ah, the devil is in the details!  I went through the entire month’s worth of lunches with a very simple set of criteria:  1) no high fructose corn syrup***, 2) no trans fats and 3) no artificial colorings or questionable additives/preservatives.  The end result:  only one meal made the cut:  a Barilla plus penne pasta served with a side of fruit/vegetables.  But then, could my kids eat lunch there on that one day?   I checked the ingredients for the a la carte cookies and brownies which typically accompany a meal.  Nope, they didn’t make the cut.  So I was off to my next approach.

***Did you all see the article in the Chicago Tribune on January 27th discussing the link between high fructose corn syrup processing and mercury?  I’ve included the abstract for the paper published in Environmental Health on which the article was based (see sources, below). Thank you to Jennifer Neff for alerting me to the article and Tia Rains for providing the abstract as well as the full study (1).

Stop #3 was the website of a fantastic packed lunch program called Green Bag Lunch.  Green Bag Lunch was started by a local (Evanston) mom who partnered with a local (Wilmette) dad who wanted to offer a healthier and more environmentally friendly lunch option for kids.  The packaging is eco-friendly (using things like cellulose bags instead of plastic baggies), and the menu is simple:  a main course featuring whole grains and lean protein, two choices of sides (fruits/veggies), and a two-bite dessert that helps teach kids about portion control.  I met up with one of the founders, Anne Weber (the Evanston mom) and found her to be passionate about kids, nutrition and the environment.  She wants to help parents be better parents, too.  Here is what she had to say about the genesis of Green Bag Lunch:

“My partner and I started this business as a way to help fellow parents who were struggling to provide an admirable level of nutrition for their children.  As dual-working parents, living busy and stressed lives, we absolutely felt the guilt and frustration of not parenting at the level we had promised ourselves.  We wanted to help parents be good parents—providing nutrient-rich foods, providing variety & creativity, even providing kid-friendly lessons in nutrition and sustainability. Lunch is just one of the hundreds of ways parents provide for their kids every week—but we found it was one that was extremely stressful for parents and extremely important to kids in the long run.”

So had I found my salvation yet?  No, it seems.  In our school, having a service provider means no competitive products, so Green Bag Lunch is not an option for my kids.  It may not be for yours either, but that should not stop you from investigating other alternative lunch programs.  There are two other major lunch program providers that I researched that I am excited to tell you about.  Both serve the greater Chicagoland area, but neither serve my own kids’ district.  They may not serve your area either, so why tell you about them?  They demonstrate the growing awareness of the link between the quality of lunch programs and academic performance.  They stress the importance of fresh, local produce.  They show you that change IS possible, even for schools where the majority of the population is resource-limited.  I’ve introduced the Fresh from the Farm concept to leaders at my own school, if only to plant the seed.  So I invite you to read as much as you like about these following programs and be inspired:

Fresh from the Farm, a program by Seven Generations Ahead.  Serves Oak Park, River Forest and some Chicago schools.   Incorporates fresh local produce into the lunch menus, along with nutrition education, farm visits, school gardens, and education in the classroom.

Healthy Schools Campaign.  This organization (focused primarily on the Chicago public school system) is doing lots of great work to promote a healthier environment in the schools.  I recently learned about one of their initiatives called “Fresh Voices for Fresh Choices.”   The goal is simple:  In 2009, the Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization, and this act has the potential to create a future for school food in which fresh, healthy meals are the norm.  It can also bring more resources to nutrition education and school wellness policies.  There is a petition you can sign electronically if you want to add your name to the cause.

But now we must get back to my dilemma–  (I know change takes a while, and such programs are unlikely to solve my lunch problem in the very immediate term)…  Where to next?  I rooted out an article in my Natural Health magazine titled, “Good to go!…Packing a homemade lunch made with healthy, mood-boosting ingredients.”  (2) This article suggested some good recipes, but they seemed a bit complex for my kids’ simple tastes.  To cut down on waste, the article rightly discouraged the use of brown paper bags, disposable cutlery and paper napkins, sending me to such sites as www.reusablebags.com for a wrap-n-mat and reusable bamboo place settings. The wrap-n-mat, which is a washable plastic “tarp” for a sandwich with a Velcro closure seemed nice, but the novelty wore off quickly.  I was still piling in the same old boring lunches in to their insulated lunch bags, day after day.  (And I later found out that the plastic lining of the wrap-n-mat isn’t the best as it could leach chemicals into food).

I wanted lunches to be fun!  Fun to make, fun to eat.  I wanted them to be appealing and healthy.  I wanted my kids to eat their lunch and love it.  And I didn’t want to hurt the environment in the process.  The statistics kept ringing in my ears: the average American child produces 67 pounds of trash just from school lunch each year! (3)    So what was my salvation?  A nifty product called the Laptop Lunch Box system.*   Have you ever gone to a Japanese restaurant and ordered a Bento box?  That is what the Laptop Lunch Box is like.  It is a four compartment box with removable containers so that you can adjust the pieces if needed, and it is shaped just like a laptop computer. It even has its own carrying case that looks nice and makes my kids feel like they are carrying something very important.  The compartments keep each food item in its own little area, displayed in an appealing way.   I add my own cloth napkin to cut down on waste.  Here is a link to a picture to give you an idea: (this picture is rotating every week, so you can click on it one week to the next and get new ideas):

Laptop lunch example
*For purchasing information, please see end of article.

Once we got the Laptop Lunch boxes for my kids (a primary colored one for my son and a pink one for my daughter), making lunches is fun!  I look forward to being able to arrange things in an appealing way.

On a typical day I might make:
large compartment 1: a sunbutter and jelly sandwich cut it up into little triangles
large compartment 2: a green vegetable like peas or broccoli
small compartment 3: spelt pretzels, raisins or slices of apples
small compartment 4: a small homemade cookie

Another day I might make:
large compartment 1: a turkey wrap, or penne pasta
large compartment 2: a vegetable like carrots, or maybe apple slices
small compartment 3: cubes of cheese
small compartment 4: a small homemade brownie

The ideas go on and on.  Wraps, chicken salads, hard boiled egg slices.  Leftovers seem to work great in Laptop Lunches, as you can make them look pretty.  I don’t know why it is so much more fun to arrange these things in this little boxes (as opposed to piling baggies into a bag), but it is!  The best part is that the boxes come home every afternoon, usually empty, and I simply wash them out with hot water and soap to use the next day.  When my kids first started using these lunch boxes a few months ago, their friends wanted to know where they could get theirs.  Even the principal came over to compliment my daughter on her lunch!

If you need more ideas on some great, healthy lunches, the Laptop Lunch System comes with a great little book with recipes and ideas.  Or, check out this one page chart posted by freshlunches.com  (available in California, another cool lunch program to inspire you).

You might want to post the above chart (from fresh lunches) in your kitchen for inspiration!

So that is my own lunch make-over.  Whatever situation you find yourself in, be sure to do your homework and make sure you know what your child is eating.  Research possible alternatives.  If you do decide to purchase a Laptop Lunch Box through the Nurture store, Amazon Associates will direct the entire (albeit small) commission to Nurture, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping low-income families upgrade their nutritional status.  So that is a nice win-win.  Please let me know how your own lunch make-overs turn out.  I wish the best for your own kids’ delicious, healthy and environmentally friendly lunches!

Update to article (March 2011)

I’d like to salute some of the latest efforts underway to revolutionize the school lunch scene.  A special thanks to Theo Gund who has sent me several great ideas for this newsletter!

Salute to:  Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Project, which is expanding its work to become an online resource to “map the movement” by identifying like-minded organizations around the world and gathering and distributing best practices.   Check out the Edible Schoolyard Project at http://edibleschoolyard.org

Salute to:  Chef Andrea Martin and “Cook for America.” Her plan is to re-convert school cafeterias to their original cooking purposes (instead of opening huge boxes of dried, dehydrated junk, adding water and feeding it to kids).  Check out Cook for America!http://cookforamerica.com.

Salute to:  Catherine Gund and the team at “What’s on Your Plate”.  Sadie and Safiyah deserve medals of courage for taking on the big questions about where our food comes from (and how it ends up in the school lunch program within the New York City public school system).  Read more about the film and book at: http://www.whatsonyourplateproject.org

Salute to: Greg Christian of The Organic School Program (Chicago, IL).   In Greg’s new blog, he discusses the reality of the foods served in schools, what the people need to do to build a sustainable food system in their schools and communities, and his goals for a healthier school environment.  Follow him at: http://pullthetriggeronschoollunches.com/

Salute to:  Jamie Oliver (you remember my infatuation with him, yes?).

Salute to:  Michelle Obama, who recently said of the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act: “This isn’t just about our kids’ health. Studies have shown that our kids’ eating habits can actually affect their academic performance as well. Anyone who works with kids knows that they need something other than chips and soda in their stomachs if they’re going to focus on math and science, right?”  New Nutrition Standards for Public Schools, which have not been updated in 15 years, were announced earlier this year.  These new standards affect 32 million children daily.  Here’s are the new standards (announced January 25, 2012 and scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2012):

  • No more than 1/3 of school lunch (1/4 of school breakfast) calories can come from fat; less than 10% from saturated fat.
  • School meals must meet strict calorie limits.
  • Schools must gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals.
  • Cafeterias must offer larger servings of vegetables and fruit with every school lunch, and children must take at least one serving.
  • Milk must be fat-free or 1% (flavored milk must be fat-free).
  • Schools must offer a wide variety of vegetables, including at least a weekly serving of dark green and red/orange vegetables and legumes.
  • Within two years, all grains offered must be whole-grain rich.

Here is a “before and after” menu, according to the guidelines.

First Lady Michelle Obama is also behind the Chefs Move to Schools (founded in May 2010), an integral part the Let’s Move! Initiative and its goal of solving the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. The program pairs chefs with schools in their communities with the mission of collaboratively educating kids about food and proper nutrition. I’ve linked to the Recipes for Healthy Kids before, but in case you missed it, here it is again.


(1)      Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar.  Environmental Health 2009, 8:2.  26 January 2009.  Abstract: Mercury cell chlor-alkali products are used to produce thousands of other products including food ingredients such as citric acid, sodium benzoate, and high fructose corn syrup.  High fructose corn syrup is used in food products to enhance shelf life.  A pilot study was conducted to determine if high fructose corn syrup contains mercury, a toxic metal historically used as an anti-microbial.  High fructose corn syrup samples were collected from three different manufacturers and analyzed for total mercury. The samples were found to contain levels of mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup. Average daily consumption of high fructose corn syrup is about 50 grams per person in the United States.  With respect to total mercury exposure, it may be necessary to account for this source of mercury in the diet of children and sensitive populations.  You can email me if you’d like to get a copy of this study.

(2)      By Linda Monastra.  Natural Health magazine.  November, 2008.  Pp. 39-45.

(3)      Source: www.greenbaglunch.com

Disclaimer: This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.


  1. kathryn guylay says:

    I love this video from Whole Foods about packing healthy lunches!

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