Fall into Your Back-to-School Routine with these Nutrition Tips from a Registered Dietitian
By: Renee Korczak Ph.D., RDN, CSSD, LD
What’s for lunch? If you are a mom like me, you probably hear that question daily and with a new back to school season approaching us, it’s time to start thinking about what nutritious foods might fit into your child’s lunchbox. Lunch is an extremely important meal for children to help support proper growth and development and to help support academic and physical performance.
As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I think about what key nutrients children require during this time and then plan lunch meals and snacks with foods that contain those key nutrients.
Here is an overview of the key essential nutrients that children require and then some nutrient-dense meal/snack ideas that can help fill your child’s lunchbox or serve as a delicious after school snack.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and Vitamin D are two nutrients that go together like peanut butter and jelly. Calcium is one of the main mineral components of bone tissue and it is especially important for proper bone formation. Vitamin D plays an important role in Calcium metabolism and bone mineralization; a diet with insufficient amounts of Calcium and Vitamin D can impact skeletal formation and growth. Vitamin D also plays a key role in immune health (1-2). Some foods that contain Calcium include dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and some leafy vegetables including broccoli. Vitamin D can be found in fortified breakfast cereals, orange juice, and fatty fish. Think about adding foods that contain Calcium and Vitamin D to your child’s lunchbox such as yogurts, string cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, or broccoli bites.
Protein is an essential nutrient that aids in accretion of lean body mass and fuels growth in children (3). Remember that not all protein is created equal and that sources of high-quality protein include lean pork, beef, fish, dairy products and some plant-based products such as soy. High-quality proteins are considered
complete, meaning that they contain all the essential amino acids that your body requires daily. When thinking about your child’s lunch, my advice is to keep it simple and include at least one source of high-quality protein in your child’s lunchbox. If your child is in after school sports, you may also want to think about offering an after sports snack that contains a source of high-quality protein paired with a carbohydrate. The protein will help recover muscle tissue while the carbohydrate will help replenish glycogen stores pending how active your child is. Some of my lunchbox favorites that include protein are pulled pork quesadilla with apple slices, fun shaped cheese sandwiches on whole grain bread or a colorful pasta salad with chicken strips and veggies.
Dietary fiber is a nutrient that children and most American adults struggle to get enough of. Dietary fiber is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes and some packaged snacks. Fiber is so important because it is supportive of gut health and aids in disease prevention (4). To set good habits that encourage your child to eat more fiber, it is important to let them choose their favorite fruits and vegetables and get them involved in packing their lunch. Pears, berries, apples, bananas and avocados are all delicious fibrous choices that can be enjoyed at lunch and also provide nutrients that children require such as Vitamin C and Potassium.
Iron is a mineral that is necessary to help carry oxygen to all cells of the body. Iron comes in two forms, heme and non-heme. Heme sources of Iron can be found in foods such as pork and beef, whereas non-heme sources of Iron can be found in foods such as whole grains, legumes and some leafy greens. Heme sources of Iron are a bit more bioavailable, meaning that your body absorbs it more efficiently. When thinking about your child’s lunchbox consider adding a fun source of Iron such as mini pork meatballs with whole grain pasta or rice with mixed veggies. If you are adding non-heme sources of Iron to your child’s lunchbox, be sure to provide some Vitamin C from oranges or a citrus-based dressing; Vitamin C helps in the absorption of non-heme Iron.
In summary, packing your child’s lunchbox doesn’t have to be hard if you find nutrient-dense foods that help support their growth and development and foods that are practical and realistic for them to eat. Wishing you a successful start to the school year!
1. Linus Pauling Institute. Calcium.
https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/minerals/calcium. Accessed August 14, 2023.
2. Linus Pauling Institute. Vitamin D.
https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-D. Accessed August 14, 2023.
3. Ve Braun K, et al. Dietary Intake of Protein in Early Childhood is Associated with Growth Trajectories between 1 and 9 years of age. J Nutr 2016; 146(11): 2361-2367.
4. Slavin J.L. Fiber and Prebiotics: Mechanisms and Health Benefits. Nutrients 2013; 5(4): 1417-1435.