Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day. It provides early morning energy to get through the grog of first waking up. Dinner is also important; not only does it provide nutrition, but it sometimes comes with the added benefit of conversation with family and friends. That leaves just one more meal: lunch! During the school year, which is quickly approaching, lunchtime is both a social event and an opportunity to fuel your mind with the best food to stay focused and healthy.
According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, a healthy lunchbox includes:
- 1 Serving Fresh Fruit
- 2 Servings Vegetables
- 1 Serving Protein (Make sure it’s a healthy one!)
- 1 Serving Whole Grains
- Dairy (If you like it!)
An ideal healthy lunch will include one serving of fresh fruit, but what does one serving look like? The professionals at Mayo Clinic recommend a serving size of four to six ounces. If you do not have access to a scale, though, there are other ways to determine a serving size. If you enjoy apples, pears, or peaches, find one that is about the same size as your hand when it forms a fist. A fist-sized fruit is typically one serving. If you prefer fruit juice, you can try a quarter cup of your favorite drink, but make sure it is 100% juice, and watch out for added sugar!
Apples are nutrient dense and a great option to choose from when you pack your lunch. Healthline.com suggests that a medium-sized apple has 10% of the daily value* of vitamin C, 6% of the daily value of copper, 5% of the daily value potassium, 4% of the daily value of vitamin K, and 2-5% of the daily value for vitamins E, B1, and B6.
*Daily values are based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet
Vegetables come in large varieties, which is a good thing because lunch should include an average of two servings! One serving of vegetables is about 75g (2.6 ounces) as outlined by eatforhealth. To fulfill the serving requirement, you could eat a half-cup of cooked carrots, broccoli, or spinach and one cup of raw cucumber, cauliflower, or snap peas. Remember you need two servings, so pick two options to put in your lunch.
You may have heard that carrots are beneficial for eyesight, and while they certainly are, they have many other benefits, too. According to Lauren Panoff, an author for Healthline, carrots contain beta carotene and lutein. Beta carotene and lutein are both antioxidants and members of a group called carotenoids. The University of Rochester claims that beta carotene is a provitamin, meaning it is used by your body to make vitamin A. Vitamin A is important because it boosts the immune system and helps protect from infections (thenourishedchild). Lutein, as described by the University of Rochester, protects and improves eye function.
The American Heart Association determined that one serving of protein varies depending on the type of food considered. You could have one cooked egg (including the yolk), or two egg whites. Some other options include approximately three ounces of cooked lean meat, like chicken or turkey. If you prefer to get your protein from dry beans or nuts, you could eat a quarter cup of cooked beans, or one tablespoon of peanut butter. Always check food restrictions with your school first as some have prohibited nut-based foods from being brought into the building.
The professionals at the Cleveland Clinic tell us that beans can “boost your brain power.” Beans (also known as legumes) are a major contributor of B vitamins, which are indispensable. These important nutrients help your body produce more energy and improve communication between your brain and your body. If you enjoy legumes and want to pack your protein this way, try packing a quarter cup of cooked beans, or two tablespoons of hummus to dip your carrots in.
Whole grains are slightly different than our other categories for a healthy, balanced lunch. When searching out whole grain foods, the ideal approach is to look for foods made entirely with whole grain. The Whole Grains Council suggests foods like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole grain bread to meet daily requirements. A half cup of cooked brown rice or oatmeal provides one serving of whole grains. If you are packing a sandwich for lunch, you could use a slice of 100% whole grain bread, which also satisfies a serving.
Another unique quality of whole grains is their serving size. The examples listed above are very likely to fill a serving size, but each food varies depending on its ingredients. With whole grains, it is very important to check nutritional labels and make sure the food is nearly 100% whole grain. Try to avoid high percentages of refined grain, which are not as healthy for your body and can include a lot of extra sugar.
Milk has been a staple drink at school lunch tables for many years, and for good reason. Katie Bambacht, the Vice President of School and Nutrition at the National Dairy Council, claims that a single glass [8 ounces] of milk provides thirteen essential nutrients for children. Gonna Need Milk outlines those nutrients as follows:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin A
- Pantothenic Acid
If you do not like milk or prefer to drink water, you can add dairy to your lunch by other means. Yogurt, soymilk, and different cheeses are other great sources of dairy. If you love cheddar cheese, consider packing two slices or four cubes to make a whole serving.
What’s in My Lunchbox?
There are endless ways to meet the requirements for a healthy, balanced lunch. All of these work together to fuel you and your brain so that you can perform well in school, sports, or other fun activities like enrichment classes or summer camps! Now that you’ve learned some examples, try to experiment with different options to see what you enjoy the most. If you want to share what you tried during your first week back to school, raise your hand in class and see if there is time to name your top three favorite foods. Perhaps other students will want to share, as well! What’s your go-to balanced lunch? We would love to hear about it in the comments!
Author: Kyrsten O’Donnell, Teacher at A Grade Ahead