Even though Lisa Hark spends her days teaching medical students about nutrition, she still faces the same dilemma as the rest of us when making lunches for her kids:
Should she pack what is good for them or what she knows they'll eat? The answer, for the mother of two, is both.
Hark, director of the Nutrition Education and Prevention Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, takes a reality-based approach to the school lunch bag.
She makes a good old-fashioned PB&J, because, in truth, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a pretty darn good lunch - if you make it on whole-grain bread with good peanut butter and all-fruit, no-sugar-added preserves.
You've got fiber, B vitamins and magnesium in the bread; mono- and polyunsaturated fat, Vitamin E, niacin, folate, zinc and magnesium in the peanut butter; and pure fruit in the preserves.
But don't even think about using Marshmallow Fluff. Hark scoffs: "It's pure sugar!"
Hark, who hosted the first season of Honey We're Killing the Kids!, a TV makeover show on TLC addressing the issue of child obesity, tries to find ways to increase fiber and reduce fats in foods her kids like.
Yet once every two or three months, she'll allow her third grader to take a Kraft Lunchable to school ("I prefer not to. I think they are too processed," she said, "but he likes them"). Occasionally, she'll slip a mini chocolate candy bar in her seventh grader's lunch as a treat.
"I want them to eat healthy, but I don't want them to feel deprived," she says. If you restrict everything, children will sneak the forbidden treats. "You will find candy wrappers in the bed," Hark says.
School lunches, whether packed at home or bought in the cafeteria, have long been a subject of scrutiny. "School lunches are closely associated with child health," opined the authors of the Good Housekeeping's Book of Good Meals - back in 1927. "Uninviting paper-bag lunches, prepared without much thought for the interest of which a variety of food brings to children, should be a thing of the past."
The book recommends such lunches as "Graham crackers with peanut butter, baked cup custard, apple, milk." If you substitute "pudding cup" for "cup custard," this lunch would be familiar to today's schoolchildren.
Familiarity is, in fact, key to successful school lunches, says Ellen Klavan, a California-based psychotherapist and author of The Creative Lunch Box (Crown).
"Children are not at their most experimental at school at lunchtime," she said in a recent phone interview. "They tend to be creatures of habit, and they are juggling a lot between schoolwork and their relationships with their peers."
Thus, she continued, "they want lunch to be something familiar, something comforting." They also, she says, do not want lunch to make them stand out from the crowd, or seem "weird."
That's why the kid who loves tofu at home may not be willing to eat it at school. A lot depends on the individual school's cafeteria culture, Klavan says. In some schools, a thermos of hot-and-sour soup or a cashew-butter-and-sprout sandwich wouldn't raise an eyebrow; in others, it would be the social kiss of death.
And the rules may change suddenly in junior high or high school, when a lunch that in early years would have been considered the height of weirdness - sushi or seitan, for example - may become the height of sophistication.
The parents' job (and no one says it's easy) is "to listen to and respect what their children want while honoring their responsibility to make it healthy," Klavan says.
With "weird" food out of bounds (and the definition subject to change without notice), parents may feel they are left with limited choices. But Hark believes you can begin to tweak the familiar and gradually make it more nutritionally sound.
"If your child will only eat a baloney sandwich," she says, "evaluate the sandwich." She enumerates the criteria: Are you slathering it with mayo? Are you using five slices of baloney or two or three? Is it low-fat bologna? You could be adding needless calories and fat. Are you putting the baloney on white bread? Consider whole-grain alternatives.
"I don't think you can just change their lunch all at once and expect them to eat it," she says. "Just focus on a few small, meaningful changes." If your child does - as she has seen some do while on school field trips with her children - drink a 24-ounce soda at lunch, try reducing that to 12 ounces, and then try lower-sugar substitutes. ("There are way too many kids, especially older kids, drinking sodas. We really need to help parents stop buying it," Hark says.)
If he or she drinks a sugary "juice drink," substitute 100 percent juice. You can transition further, to plain water, down the road.
Nancy Fineman, a registered dietitian and mother of three from Lafayette Hill, is concerned about not only the content of the lunchbox, but also the size of the portions. She wants to teach her children good eating habits, which include sensible portions, she says.
But there is another aspect to portion control: Children can be overwhelmed by large portions. Her third grader, she says, "just can't eat a whole sandwich," so she only packs half.
Hark, who recently penned the article "The ABCs of a Healthy School Year" for the University of Pennsylvania (www.lisahark.com), suggests that parents pack lunch - or, better yet, work with their children to pack a healthy lunch - at least three times a week.
Especially as they get older, it is important to help them understand the connection between eating healthy and feeling good and having energy, Hark says.
And she reminds parents that the lunch bag is only part of the picture. Kids, she says, should be encouraged to exercise at least one hour a day, and limited in their pursuit of passive entertainments like video games and television (not only is it passive, she notes, but TV-watching exposes kids to tempting ads for junk foods).
"It's all about balance," she says.
Instead of This ... Try ThisInstead of white bread: Whole wheat, whole grain, or whole wheat white bread, whole grain wrap (child size), or pita pocket
Instead of American cheese: Reduced-fat cheese
Instead of baloney and salami: Turkey and ham
Instead of regular peanut butter (not shown): Natural peanut butter, reduced-fat peanut butter
Instead of juice box, soda or sports drink: Bottled water
Instead of a candy bar: Low-fat granola bar, chocolate chip rice cakes
Instead of potato chips: Baked chips, whole wheat pretzels, mini rice cakes
Fruit that packs well, including grapes, clementines, Seckel pears (whole apples usually return home uneaten, and cut-up apples will turn brown; you can buy packaged apple slices or pack sliced apples in a bag with a squeeze of lemon juice)
Vegetables: mini carrots, cucumber slices or spears, celery sticks, pickles, bell pepper slices, salad greens with a side of dressing, sliced peeled jicama (tastes like a cross between an apple and a potato), olives, cherry or grape tomatoes
Mixed, unsalted (or lightly salted) roasted nuts, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds
Other Winning Combinations
Peanut butter and . . . crushed pineapple, sliced bananas, raisins, apple slices, lettuce
Bagel and cream cheese and . . . sliced cucumber, sliced bell pepper, sliced apple or pear, chopped nuts
Tuna fish salad made with ... grated onion, diced celery, grated carrots, diced pickles, capers, light mayo or low-fat ranch dressing
Chicken salad made with ... any or all of the above (for tuna salad), plus chopped pecans, walnuts or almonds, halved grapes, diced water chestnuts, diced jicama
Low-fat string cheese and whole-grain crackers
Low-fat, low-sugar, high-fiber muffins and fresh fruit
Pasta salad made with tri-colored or whole wheat pasta, and including vegetables that your child will eat, such as scallions, peas, carrots, bell peppers
- Compiled by Marialisa Calta with suggestions
from nutritionist Lisa Hark and author Ellen Klavan