A couple of weeks ago, a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showing that 67% of calories consumed by U.S. youths are coming from ultra-processed foods. Yes, that is over two-thirds!
Remember, ultra-processed foods include fast food, soft drinks, packaged snacks, chips, candy, cookies, cereals, sauces, dressings and more...usually made with a longer list of ingredients including flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers, sweeteners, thickeners and other substances.
There are many studies now providing convincing evidence that these foods adversely affect our health. They are, unfortunately, loaded with added sugars, sodium, refined carbs and more, and they increase the risk of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. They contribute to becoming overweight or obese. They even increase the risk of depression.
What else did the study find?
- Unprocessed and minimally processed foods make up less than 1/4 of calories consumed (these are foods like fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, meat, fish, eggs and more...what we like to call REAL FOOD!).
- Sweet snacks and treats account for 12.9% of calories (think foods like granola bars, cereal, cookies and ice cream).
- Ready to heat & eat dishes provide 11.2% of calories consumed (foods like pizza, sandwiches, chicken nuggets, frozen burritos and more).
Does this sound like a train wreck ready to happen?!
What can we do?
The first thing we have to do is remember our kids are always watching. For better or worse, they soak up our actions and our words, and they internalize the behaviors they see in the people they spend the most time with. This is why it is crucial to set a good example.
In this coaching tip, we also want to focus on another big one...
tackling the lunchtime routine!
At this time of year, so many parents are dealing with the ongoing dilemma of what to do for school lunches. If you’re like us, you want your kids to eat something that keeps them energized and focused throughout the day (no sleeping during afternoon math class!). Ideally, this means they are getting a good combination of vegetables, fruits, lean meat, whole grains and nuts...you know, REAL FOOD!
BUT, LET'S FACE IT...THIS CAN BE EXTREMELY CHALLENGING WITH SCHOOL LUNCHES.
Many school lunches tend to consist of those "ready to heat / eat dishes" and "sweet snacks and treats." We looked at our son's school menu for August and it includes things like Country Fried Steak, Chicken Strip Wrap, Stuffed Crust Pizza, Cinnamon Rolls and a Carnival Cookie. Now, we know some amazing people who are doing wonderful things with school lunches, but these are still the exception and, for a variety of reasons, school lunches are often NOT ideal in terms of nutrition!
We have mentioned before that whenever our son ate the school lunch, he never seemed to get full. He would end up getting a second entrée or hit up the snack bar for a little something extra (maybe this is just “a thing” with teenage boys?!). This brings the cost of his lunch to almost $5. Over the course of the school year, that’s almost $1,000!
Our son now prefers to take his lunch the majority of the time, but it can be overwhelming to think about packing 180 lunches per child during the year. Plus, how do you keep it interesting? There are only so many PB&J sandwiches a child is willing to eat!
THE OTHER CHALLENGE? TIME!
There are so many things that have to get done in the mornings…packing a lunch can easily get pushed aside because “they can always just get lunch at school.” We are also guilty of trying to make lunch for our kids too many times when they are completely capable of doing it themselves!
While it took us a while to come to grips with this (and it can still be a challenge), kids taking responsibility for their own lunches is a fantastic way to empower them, teach them responsibility and the simple art of how to put together a well-balanced meal.
If this is a challenge you face, be positive and don’t get discouraged!
HERE ARE SOME IDEAS THAT MIGHT MAKE THINGS A LITTLE EASIER:
- Sit down and make a list together of the types of lunches your child would love to be able to eat at school…and then get creative to make this a reality.
- Consider theme days to make the decisions easier. For example, maybe Monday is sandwich day, Tuesday is salad day, Wednesday is Mexican day…and so on.
- During the weekend, make a list for the upcoming week and place it on the fridge or in a visible area for easy access. This also helps make sure everyone is on the same page.
- Have the kids pack their lunch the night before…one less thing to worry about during those hectic mornings.
- Invest in the right types of containers…get a variety of sizes and make sure you have tight-fitting lids.
- Invest in good re-usable ice packs, forks, spoons and a water bottle.
- Let the kids pick out their own “lunchbox” — something “cool” they will be proud to take with them.
- Throw in a surprise when they’re not looking. It could be a small sweet treat, a funny note or anything else that will make them smile!
When you get creative and think beyond carrots and apples slices, you and your kids can make lunches interesting, delicious AND healthy:
- Build your own taco bar. Include corn or flour tortillas, cooked taco meat, lettuce, cheese, avocado, salsa or other favorite toppings.
- Breakfast for lunch. Yogurt, fruit and nuts can make for a delicious combination in the Yogurt Fruit and Nutty Salad. You can also make a large batch of mini frittatas using muffin pans, and then they are easy to throw into a lunch. Muffins (using whole grains) and even pancakes, French toast and waffles can also be great options.
- Salads, including salads with whole grains. Consider Buddha Bowls - you can prepare big batches using brown rice, pasta, quinoa, farro or other whole grains. By incorporating your child’s favorite fruits and vegetables (and even meats), this can be a delicious, healthy and super-easy option.
- Sliders. The possibilities are endless. You can use chicken, pork or even leftover meatballs. Find an interesting whole grain bread your child likes and include the desired toppings. You can keep the meat separate so your child can warm it up, and then easily assemble the sliders in the cafeteria.
- Popcorn. A great alternative to potato chips, especially using an air-popped popper. And then, easily jazz up popcorn to give it flavors like pizza, sweet & spicy, kettle corn or even drizzle with a little dark chocolate.
- Soups. Invest in small thermos containers to help keep soup warm until lunch time. A delicious option is to slice a grilled cheese sandwich (or quesadilla) into strips, along with some tomato soup. Let the dipping begin!
- Leftovers! Leftovers from your dinners during the week always make for great lunches. Many schools even have microwaves that students can use to warm up their meals.
By keeping your lunches interesting and delicious, you may be surprised to hear your kids say “…but I don’t want to eat the school lunch.” We have heard kids say, "packing lunch the night before is so much easier than I thought...and by doing it myself, I really like knowing exactly what is in my lunch!"
It's a great feeling to know you are keeping your kids well-nourished throughout the day, giving them the energy and focus they need to perform their best, and even saving some money in the process!
There are also other ways to try to improve the ratio of ultra-processed vs. REAL food and, as we enter September next week, it will mark the start of Better Breakfast Month. So, stay tuned for more ideas and tips focused on how to tackle breakfast!
What are your favorite strategies to get your kids - or grandkids - to eat more REAL FOOD?
Are there challenges you need help with?
Let's get the conversation going...and together, reverse those percentages - let's help our kids enjoy over two-thirds of their calories from REAL FOOD!