FARGO — The school year is back in session and families all around the country are learning to navigate the new normal, both in their home life and their school life.

After 170-plus days of eating lunches at home, going back to school lunch can be a tricky situation, especially with all the new COVID-19 regulations in place. The school lunch program is great, but nothing really beats a home-lunch.

And it can be a great way to teach kiddos how to take charge of their own nutrition in a healthy and positive way.

"I think one of the biggest things to keep in mind is that we want to be providing nutritionally dense options that are going to not only fuel our kids from an energy standpoint, but fuel our kids from the brain-power standpoint as well," said Bri Srnsky, senior dietitian with Sanford Health in Fargo. "We want to be selecting foods that are providing enough nutrition to be satisfying, so they're going to keep the kiddos full for a longer period of time."

According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 30 million children nationwide participate in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program in public and nonprofit private schools. Students who participate in this program receive nutritionally-balanced meals that are designed to keep them full and ready to learn throughout the entire day.

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In an article written for fruitsandveggies.org, a website for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, it's said that current research says lunches purchased at school are typically a healthier option than lunches brought from home. This study, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, looked at over 1,300 student lunches for pre-K and kindergarten students in three schools over a five-day period. Of those observations, around 43% of students packed their lunches, while roughly 57% bought at the school. After studying the nutritional value of the students' packed lunches compared to the week of school-served lunch, it was concluded that the packed lunches contained significantly higher amounts of calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C and iron. School lunches, on the other hand, contained higher amounts of protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A and calcium.

Bri Srnsky is a Senior Dietitian with Sanford Health in Fargo. Submitted photo
Bri Srnsky is a Senior Dietitian with Sanford Health in Fargo. Submitted photo

"We want to be sure the the meals we're providing have a combination of nutrients," Srnsky said. "With the carbohydrate, protein dietary fat, to get that energy and sustain kids going through the day with schoolwork, and then activities after school as well."

Pre-packaged, processed foods are delicious, but they're not the types of foods that provide enough nutrition to keep students fueled throughout the day.

"I think we can look at it from a cost standpoint, too," Srnsky said. "They get expensive. And the other piece of that is we can really make a homemade version of all of those things and increase the nutritional content."

Simple swaps — like using whole-grain crackers over regular crackers and low-sodium meats in homemade "Lunchables" — and adding a fruit or vegetable can help bump up the nutritional value of a packed lunch.

"We're adding a little bit more nutritional value and a bit more fiber that's going to help kids stay a little bit more full," she said. "We can adjust the protein, whether it be in a type of meat or cheese, even adding a little bit more dietary fat in a little trail mix with nuts and raisins or that kind of thing. We can keep it a fun lunch idea, but we can improve the nutrition piece of it so there's a bit less added sugar, less sodium and increased fiber and micro-nutrient value."

Increasing these micro-nutrients also helps improve overall health and help boost immunity — something that's important all the time, not just during a pandemic.

Srnsky also wants to note the importance of staying hydrated throughout the day, too. Sipping on water throughout the day can aid in digestion, lessen hunger pains, reduce fatigue and even improve short-term memory, along with so much more.

"Providing good nutrition goes beyond just, you know, healthy intake and a healthy person," said Srnsky. "But then it goes into the idea of improved cognitive function, improved attendance at school and improved mood."

So what do we pack?

Packing lunch for school can be a fun way to teach kids the importance of good nutrition and how to fuel their bodies healthfully.

"Especially with younger kids, anytime that we can involve them, they're more likely to eat the food item," Srnsky said. "So even if it's a matter of, in the evening, giving them a couple options and saying 'what do you want to eat today' and have (the kids) put their side item in (their lunchbox)."

Getting kids involved in picking out items to eat can be fun, and Srnsky says giving them the option helps them feel like they're in control.

"Even in the grocery shopping aspect of it," she said. "Asking them 'what kind of fruits do we want this week? What kind of snacks are we looking for?' And just getting their input. It's important to always be aware of how things are presented. So instead of 'hey, do you want to put a vegetable in your lunch?' maybe ask if he wants snap peas or carrots. That way there's not the option of no, but the option of what sounds better."

It doesn't have to just be sandwiches. Finger foods and leftovers make great school lunches for kiddos! iStock / Special to InForum
It doesn't have to just be sandwiches. Finger foods and leftovers make great school lunches for kiddos! iStock / Special to InForum

While the tried-and-true sandwich will always be a classic, it can get a little played out. Srnsky says mixing it up a bit can keep things exciting, while encouraging good nutrition.

"We tend to want, obviously, the quick and easy go to things," she said. "A couple different options might be, instead of a traditional sandwich, doing a waffle sandwich — making a whole grain waffle, adding peanut butter and no-sugar added jelly or fruit preserves —decreasing sugar content, while putting in increased fiber. It's something a little different."

Other alternatives to the normal sandwich are choosing a wrap or sandwich kebabs, cubing meat and cheese and skewering them together.

"Another idea for kids who may do a lot of finger-food is thinking about packing a finger-food-type lunch," she said. "Maybe doing pretzels, whole grain crackers, something of that nature with either hummus or a nut butter. Then adding in some fruits they can grab or veggies they can grab switches that up a little bit too."