It’s a problem that’s growing across the United States as schools struggle to squeeze more class time into a fixed schedule, says Jim Bogden, a senior project associate at the National Association of State Boards of Education. Several years ago, junior and senior high schools across the country began a push to increase standardized test scores. Block scheduling — class periods of approximately 90 minutes — became the norm. To accommodate those longer periods, lunch periods were cut back.
Consequently, lunch was seen as expendable. Why? “Because the students don’t have their books open,” Bogden says.
That’s unfortunate because the energy and nutrient needs of an adolescent are higher than at any other point in life — except during pregnancy and lactation. This is also the time that kids learn eating habits that will often remain with them for a lifetime. Consider that an active 15-year-old boy requires a whopping 4,000 calories or more, just to maintain his weight. And teen-age girls who don’t get enough calcium may be prone to developing osteoporosis later in life.
Schools need to realize that proper nutrition affects the way children learn, says Gail Frank, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at California State University, Long Beach, and a consultant to several school districts on their lunch programs. But until that happens, she makes these suggestions on how to beat the time crunch at lunch.
- Serve breakfast. Time and time again, Frank sees teen-agers rush off to school without a proper morning meal. With a compressed lunch break, they don’t have a chance to make up for their missed breakfast. Make sure your teen-ager sits down to a healthy, balanced breakfast every day. Lunch then becomes a refueling time rather than the first meal of the day.
- Pack a snack. Most schools still have a break of several minutes in the morning. This is a good time to break out the granola bars, bagel, cheese and crackers, or trail mix that the students brought with them. That way, they don’t have to eat as much at lunch to get proper daily nutrition.
- Have your teens scope out the lunch lines. If you look at most cafeterias, the longest lines lead to the burgers.”It’s a burger jungle out here. Many kids are caught up in that,” says Frank. Instead, they should head over to the salad bar or the sandwich bar. The lines are quicker and the food is better for your kids.
- Pack the ultimate bag lunch. Avoid the cafeteria lines altogether. Here’s a sample of what Frank considers to be a healthy brown bag lunch that can withstand the heat and clutter of a locker: One turkey and cheese sandwich on whole-wheat or whole-grain bread (two sandwiches for boys). Add a single-serving package of mayo or mustard that can be spread on at lunch rather than having the condiments sit on the bread all day. If lettuce is wrapped separately it will make it through the morning without wilting. Toss in a bag of veggie chips to give kids the crunch they crave. Top off the meal with some carrot or celery sticks (a single-serving package of ranch dressing is great with these), an apple or nectarine, a few oatmeal-raisin cookies, and a couple of chocolate kisses — just for fun.