Bring the Good Back to School: 
A Dietitian's Secrets for Building a Better Lunchbox and a Healthy Student Body

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

I still remember my favorite metal lunch box from elementary school. It was a pale pink with a picture of a French poodle prancing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Inside, I would find my mother’s loving touch: a home-made sandwich wrapped in crinkly wax-paper, a thermos of chocolate milk, fresh fruit and a note with a few kind words.

I grew up before the age of prepared packaged lunches, snack-packs and fruit or sports drinks laced with high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors. Back then, school lunch was pretty simple. We either ate what was prepared—mostly from scratch–in the school cafeteria, or we packed a lunch from home. Commercialism hadn’t permeated public schools yet, and mothers didn’t have to compete with billion dollar back-to-school campaigns featuring sports and movie stars promoting highly-processed, nutrient-poor foods and beverages. (1)

Today’s parents face a tough challenge:  We have to help our kids navigate advertising and peer pressure while providing a nutritious and delicious lunch that fuels hard-working brain cells and fast-growing bodies.

The good news is there’s growing evidence supporting mothers’ basic instincts. For example, new research proves age-old wisdom that eating fruits and vegetables is key to promoting good health (2), and artificial colors and additives, such as sodium benzoate, really do increase hyperactive behavior. (3) 

We’re also beginning to unravel the mysteries of gut-brain relationships. Both probiotics, the good   bacteria found in yogurt and other fermented foods, and omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty, cold-water fish and milk and meat from organic, pasture-raised animals help promote both mental and physical health. (4,5,6) 

So how do we translate cutting edge science to build a better lunch box? Here are my tried and true secrets to success:   

1. Involve children in planning and preparing their lunch. Parents control the options, but let children make the choices. When kids have a say and a hand in food preparation, they are more likely to eat and enjoy their food.

2.  Keep it real. Choose whole foods, 100% juice and milk over packaged, processed artificially-sweetened foods and beverages.  Avoid cheap fillers and empty calories.

3. Out-smart misleading ads and labels. Look beyond “natural” and green-colored packaging. Check ingredient lists with your kids to find added sugars (ingredients ending in “ose“ ), sodium, artificial sweeteners, additives and food dyes. Remember: Only the “USDA Organic” label protects your children from synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. (7)

4. Rethink cost and convenience. Cheap food may cost less at the check-out, but it offers little value. For example, organic diets have more health protecting antioxidants, and children fed organic diets have significantly less pesticide break-down products in their urine. Who can put a price on our children’s health? (8)

5. Choose organic milk, especially for its higher levels of brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids. Milk’s also a great sports beverage, providing calcium, protein and carbohydrates to replenish and support growing muscles and bones. (9)

6. Create a buzz. Use social media to recruit fellow parents and students into the “Build a Better Lunch Box Club.” Post photos and recipes of your child’s favorite sandwich creation, and give it a catchy name. Be a better lunch advocate. (10)

7. Pack a note. School can be stressful. Including an inspirational note or silly rhyme with lunch is as good as a hug from home.

References and Resources:

1. Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. 

2.  “Dietary risks are leading cause of disease burden in the US and contributed to more health loss in 2010 than smoking, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar, “ Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation:

3. “Diet, ADHD &  Behavior,”  Center for Science in the Public Interest:

4.  “Intestinal microbiota, probiotics and mental health: from Metchnikoff to modern advances,” Bested et al., Gut Pathogens 2013, 5:3,

5.  Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., Food Sleuth Radio interview, 6/2/11;;

6. “Probiotic Power:  the surprising health benefits of yogurt,” Hemmelgarn, M.

7. National Organic Standards.

8. “Benefits of Organic Food and Farming,” Hemmelgarn, M.

9.  “Improved endurance capacity following chocolate milk consumption compared with 2 commercially available sport drinks,” Morris, T. et al.

10. Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health, Amy Kalafa.

Help children eat “well” and feel good about themselves no matter what their weight:

  • •Advocate at school for: organic school gardens, cooking classes, and a ban on sugary drinks and other fast-food-like items from your child’s cafeteria and vending machines.
  • •Trade screen time for “green time.” Nourish your child’s curiosity and sense of wonder, while alleviating boredom and behavior problems with time spent outdoors in nature.
  • •Feed your children organic food. You’ll help reduce your child’s exposure to hormone disrupting pesticides, as well as hormones from injected livestock.
  • •Avoid obesogens. Filter your water, and use glass rather than plastic food and beverage containers. Never microwave or heat food in plastic, and avoid food cans lined with BPA. (See: ).
  • •Recognize, value and praise children for their unique strengths, skills and talents. Introduce children to different hobbies, sports, music, art and community activities to develop their self-esteem independent of body weight.

Did you Know? Startling facts about childhood obesity

  • •Obesity rates have tripled among children and teens since 1980. Today, nearly one-third of our nation’s children and teens ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese.
  • •America’s children may be the first generation in history with a shorter life span than their parents due to rapidly rising obesity rates. One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes.
  • •15% of the vegetables children eat are potato chips and French fries.
  • •Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, fruit drinks and sports beverages, are the largest sources of sugar in the diets of children and teens

Recommended Reading and Listening

“I’m Like, SO Fat! Helping Your Teen Make Healthy Choices about Eating and Exercise in a Weight-Obsessed World,” Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Guilford Press, 2005. Listen to Neumark-Sztainer on Food Sleuth Radio:

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