School lunches ‘packed’ with brain food

By LINDSEY RODGERS / Staff Writer

It’s back-to-school time, and backpacks, pencils and notebooks are on the mind. But what about your child’s lunch?

Whether your child prefers packing a lunch or eating in the cafeteria, healthy lunches are a must-have.

“When kids are eating healthy, there’s a correlation to their performance in their classes, so it’s really important that the kids get good nutrition during the school day,” said Maureen Alexander, child nutrition coordinator for Shelby County Schools. “Our mission is to make sure they have access to healthy meals and healthy foods to help them learn better.”

Shelby County Schools have been working hard to provide a healthier school environment over the last six years, starting with following state guidelines for healthier lunches, and more recently participating in the USDA HealthierUS School Challenge, a program that promotes healthy, nutritious lunches at school.

“We’ve adjusted recipes to make them healthier,” Alexander said. “Parents might see pizza on the menu and think it’s not healthy, but our pizza is formulated differently. They have whole-grain crusts and low-fat cheeses, and it meets the less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats criteria.”

Alexander encouraged parents who are packing their children’s lunches to try to mirror the changes that have been made in the cafeteria.

“Parents want to emphasize fresh fruits, and try to put a piece of fruit in their lunch every day,” Alexander said. “Make their sandwiches on whole-grain breads, and if they’re going to do some type of chip, they can do a baked chip or some type of chip that incorporates whole grains, like Sun Chips.”

Alexander also recommends items like vegetables with low-fat ranch dressing, low-fat or fat-free skim milk and items like granola bars and dried fruit for dessert in place of sweets like gummy bears and cookies.

“Food safety comes into play as well when packing a lunch rather than eating it at school,” Alexander said. “Parents need to make sure they maintain foods at a cold temperature if they are supposed to be kept cold. You don’t want them to sit in a hot room or outside or in a locker, so they need to take measures to make sure the food is kept safe.”

Parents can ensure their child’s lunch stays cold by purchasing ice packs and thermal lunch boxes. However, even with these items, Alexander recommends discarding lunch items that come back home in the lunch box.

“Nurturing children translates into nourishing children in my job,” Alexander said. “The child nutrition program feeds their bodies and their souls. What job could be better?”

For more information on packing healthy lunches, go to Myplate.gov.