What’s in Your Child’s Lunch?

With January coming to a close, it’s time to get back on track from the holidays and reimplement those routines and schedules, including our children’s school lunches.

Nutrition and Child Development

The preschool years are an essential component of development, particularly brain development. A preschooler’s brain undergoes rapid and dramatic changes with increased levels of neuroplasticity (the creation of new neural pathways) that cause cognitive development to skyrocket. Essential components of brain development that occur during this critical period include memory, attention, verbal communication, and motor development. Studies show that by six years of age, 95% of the brain’s volume has already been achieved! And as we know, preschoolers become much more autonomous during this time, especially with regards to food and eating behaviors!

Nutrition plays a role in a child’s physical development. Nutrients are the building blocks for brain, organ, and body growth and development. Maria Montessori theorized that every child is naturally born with the ability to learn; it is the environment that aids in what and how they learn, and that environment includes nutrition. The brain requires specific nutrients like folic acid, iron, zinc, and healthy fats, to name a few. Malnutrition has been linked to developmental deficits, learning disabilities, increased risk of illness, fatigue, and delayed physical growth. Is your child getting what he or she needs?

The Perfect Lunch Requires Planning

Packing your children’s lunch and snack is a great way to monitor what they eat and ensure that they get the nutrients they need. MyPlate is the newest “food pyramid” and illustrates how to pack your plate with the best foods at each meal. Some tips to pack the perfect lunch for your child include:

  • Protein! Protein is required to create the building blocks of our brain and body. Protein should be the main event of the meal. The best proteins are lean and minimally processed. Some protein-packed foods include:

    • Chicken breast, turkey breast, meats, and fish

    • Cheese and Dairy – choose high protein cheeses like parmesan, swiss, mozzarella, and cheddar

    • Legumes like lentils and chickpeas

    • Broccoli – a vegetable with the highest protein!

    • Brussels sprouts – an unusual favorite, but is in 2nd place for a protein-filled veggie

    • Eggs

    • Seeds and Nuts – watch out for your school’s nut policy!

    • Oats also have fiber and essential vitamins in addition to protein

  • Healthy Fats are a must for a child’s growing brain! Healthy fats should comprise about 30% of a preschooler’s diet. Omega 3 fatty acids from fatty fish and fish oil can be tough to introduce to children but starting early can help them develop a palette for a varied diet high in nutrients. Be sure to limit unhealthy fats with little nutritional value like chips, pizza, and vegetable oils. Healthy fats include:

    • Nuts – watch out for your school’s nut policy!

    • Avocado

    • Whole milk

    • Fish and meats

    • Cooking with healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil

  • Vegetables – Vegetables may be one of the most underrated foods in American diets today. Research has shown that a vegetarian diet can decrease the risk of heart disease and it has been shown to also decrease diabetes symptoms and insulin requirements in adults with Type 2 Diabetes. Vegetables are a great way to pack your lunch with healthy, essential nutrients.

  • Limit Sugar. Try and cut out juice and instead pack milk or water. There is plenty of sugar in breads, cereals, and even natural sugars like fruits that you can easily skip the gushers and instead pack a few strawberries for a sweet treat.

  • Limit processed foods. Yes, they are convenient, but if you want the most nutrients per calorie, minimally processed is the best way to help your child grow!

  • Portion Control. Although children are constantly growing, they still can overeat and become at risk for diabetes and obesity. A good rule of thumb for preschoolers is to let children eat when they are hungry and do not force them to finish their plates. Try and put less food on their plates the first time around and allow them to have seconds if they choose.

  • Drink Water!

  • Remember Snacks! Children have slow, yet steady growth that requires snacks in between meals to keep energy levels up and to support that growth! Don’t forget to pack snacks, especially the after school snack!

At Heritage, our classrooms are culturally diverse, especially with lunches! We love to see parents packing cultural and nutritious snacks and lunches for their child. Children are fascinated when they see these nutritious and unique food choices like seaweed, hummus, and stuffed grape leaves.

Consider a lunch box with dividers (bento box) to remind you of portions and variety. An example lunch box might look like this:

Snack: ½ sunflower butter and honey sandwich on whole grain bread

Lunch: Chicken breast cubes, cheddar cheese cubes, ½ cup rice, 3 strawberries (remember to cut food in bite-size pieces that are large enough yet are easy to chew to prevent choking!)

After-school snack: hard-boiled egg, carrots, hummus, whole grain pita pieces


*Tip for Working Parents: Meal prepping can be a great way for the whole family to eat healthier during the week! Celery can be pre-chopped, chicken breasts can be pre-grilled, eggs can be pre-boiled, and hummus can be made in bulk over the weekend and kept in the fridge for a few days of stress-free lunches!

*Tips for the Picky Eater: Start with food your picky eater likes and then introduce one new food at a time. Give your child time to get used to the new food before introducing another one. Let your child choose produce at the grocery store, so they feel like they are making the decision. Use dinner time to connect with family and have children eat the same food that adults are eating. Don’t forget to make every new food experience a positive one.

Final Thoughts

Healthy eating doesn’t have to stop at lunchtime; bring those healthy habits to the dinner table! Dinners can be a great way to connect with your family at the end of a long day and can help create healthy eating habits for everyone. During dinner, focus on eating; leave cell phones and games in the other room and try not to eat with the TV on. Create a relaxed environment for dinner where everyone sits together and children do not run with food. This also allows children to focus on food and it decreases the risk of choking. Create a Montessori inspired lesson at home to teach table manners to reinforce healthy and enjoyable dinner habits.