Five Easy Swaps for a Healthier Lunch Box

It’s back to school time, which means parents and kids are shopping for items to fill up lunch boxes and brown paper bags. Sure, you could choose the same foods you chose last year, plus whatever new-”superfoods” that just hit the supermarket. However, just as the New Year is a good time to make resolutions, a new school year is a prime time to reexamine last school year’s lunch habits and try to incorporate healthier choices. Whether you are packing your child’s lunch or choosing your own lunch items, there are a few simple swaps you can make for a healthier lunch.

Switch to Whole Grains

Way back in 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported that wheat bread surpassed white bread in sliced bread sales. If you are accustomed to buying white bread for your family’s sandwiches, you are long overdue for the switch. Many types of store-bought baked goods—tortillas, pitas, and crackers—now come in tasty whole grain varieties. And there is little difference in the taste. The added fiber you’ll get relates to better heart health, lower blood pressure, and decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity. Be sure to look for the terms “100% whole grain” and whole wheat as the first ingredient.

Add More Vegetables

Vegetables are among the least favorite foods of picky eaters, so it seems like they would be hardest foods to incorporate in your healthier lunch. Start small by adding some romaine lettuce, onion, and a thin slice of tomato to your sandwich. (Hint: Choose red onion, instead of white or yellow. It has a milder flavor, which is better for eating raw.) Before you know it, you will begin to appreciate the little bit of crunch the vegetables provide, and you can expand your repertoire to include more diverse greens, like spinach and arugula, both of which pack a superior nutritional punch.

Let Fruit Be the Sweet

For many, the sweetness of fruit makes it an easy choice for school lunches. But we can often be lured into buying prepackaged, lunch-box sized fruit products like fruit snacks, which may be shaped like fruit but have very little to do with the real thing. So many fruits--apples, bananas, and oranges, to name a few--come in perfectly portioned ready-to-eat packages as well. They are higher in fiber and have no added sugar. Even unsweetened applesauce or canned fruit “in its own juice” is an acceptable choice. Already including whole fruit in your child's lunch box? The next challenge is to encourage your child to eat the fruit in place of dessert.

Recalibrate Your Sugar Sensors

You have likely heard about the major sugar culprits of soda and juice, but there are others lurking in your seemingly healthy grocery cart. Did you know that 1 cup of typical fruit flavored yogurt includes as much as 47 grams of sugar? That's about the same amount as in 18 Hershey's kisses, two servings worth. You're eating two desserts, and you didn't even know it! Instead, try buying unsweetened yogurt, which has about 12 grams of sugar (as naturally occurring milk sugar), with a teaspoon of your favorite ”all fruit” spread or fresh fruit. This could add up to a grand total of 15- 19 grams of sugar, way less than half of the average sweetened yogurt. Your self-sweetened yogurt may not seem sweet enough, at first, but stick with it. Before long, the yogurt you used to buy will seem so overly sweet so as to be unappetizing and you will love the healthier version.

Right-Size Your Containers

Even healthy foods can be unhealthy when we eat too much of them. That's why it's good to get your hands on containers that match the serving sizes for each type of food you are packing. For instance, a 2-tablespoon-sized container is good for peanut butter and dips like light salad dressing and hummus. A 1/4 cup size is great for nuts. One that's 1/2 cup, is good for proteins like tuna salad. Use a 1-cup container for pasta leftovers or, your new favorite, self-sweetened yogurt. Try a 2-cup container for a lunch that combines all of your food groups into one meal. This is a perfect size for leftovers, where you pile your protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables into one delicious bowl.

"But, but, but...

I just don’t like these healthier options.” If nutrition research has taught us anything over the years, it’s that making healthy choices we can stick to happens in baby steps. If these changes seem hard, pick just one to start with. (If they seem easy, choose harder ones.) According to Paul Rozin, professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in food choices and how we make them, all you need is practice. He says that repeated exposures can turn even a food you once categorized as disgusting into one of your favorites. And small changes add up over time. You begin by making healthier choices for your school lunch; next thing you know, you are ordering your pizza with broccoli on it. Learning, it seems, happens in the cafeteria as well as in the classroom.

Rachel Rodney, MS, RD, CDE, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Southwestern Vermont Health Care. For more information, contact rachel.rodney@svhealthcare.org. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more columns like this one, visit svhealthcare.org/wellnessconnection.