Friday, September 6, 2013

More lunch, please!

Are your kids getting enough to eat?

Sometimes in the winter, I didn’t get enough to eat at lunchtime when I was a kid. I wouldn’t get enough to eat all day, actually, until dinnertime, when my father’s presence relaxed the rules my mother laid down about pretty much everything. At dinner, I could take as much as I want as the serving bowls went around the table and chops were removed from the platter onto plates. I could even have seconds.

A typical breakfast in summer was a bowl of Cheerios, and in winter of Cream of Wheat (131 calories) and a glass of orange juice (112 calories) with a multivitamin (0 calories) that I usually skipped because it gave me a stomachache.

On school days, I’d eat my single bowl of cereal around 7 AM. On Saturdays, eating my second, third, or fifth bowl of cold cereal in front of hours of cartoons, I’d hear again and again, “part of this complete breakfast.” I studied the examples given: a bowl of the advertised cold cereal with milk, surrounded by toast, a glass of milk and a glass of juice, sometimes a grapefruit half. Weren’t the toast and milk beverage repeats? I wondered. There’s cereal and milk in the bowl.

On schooldays, some five hours after breakfast, I would join my classmates in the cafeteria and in winter, opened my lunchbox to two Thermoses: one filled with milk (150 calories) or fruit juice (100 calories), the other with chicken noodle soup (only 60 calories). The Saltines (66 calories in 5 crackers) laid on top of the Thermoses (Thermii?) hardly made a difference. After a 240 calorie breakfast and perhaps 270 calories for lunch, it’s no wonder that after school my sister and I were like starving animals, prowling the kitchen for junk food before dinner. We were seriously hungry, underfed for most of the day on a regular basis.

I have to assume that it was not because our parents were too poor to feed us properly---we were working class, my parents homeowners---but because they didn’t know how. Hot soup in winter: it must have sounded like a good idea to my mother. When I finally identified the liquid lunch as the source of my discomfort in the afternoons, she stopped sending two Thermoses, and instead allotted some of the precious real estate to more calorie dense food, like a sandwich, and let me buy my milk in the cafeteria.

In the warmer months, the food she packed was enough---PB&J (343 calories), juice or milk, a granola bar (190 calories), some fruit---at least in calories, if not a well balanced meal. Cereal, milk, and fruit juice… more bread, more milk or fruit juice, fruit, yet more cereal… there were just three food groups repeating, without much variation. Only at dinner were there vegetables and meat.

I feel like I’m making excuses for my mother, but in truth, I wondered then and I do now, whether she tried to estimate whether what she made us to eat was balanced, healthy, and sufficient. (I don’t even ask if my father knew: I’m sure he did not.) My personal history with food is why, when I look at the slate of “Back to School” blog posts on lunches you could pack for your kids, or quick and easy breakfasts for the before school rush, I scrutinize them eight ways from Sunday. I reality check them against prep times (not their estimates, mine), kids’ nutritional needs, and whether they will eat it: children are notoriously choosy eaters. For a while, all my son would eat in my presence were turkey sandwiches, and raw carrots, apples, grapes, and lettuce. I let that phase play itself out without comment, because the meal met my heuristic for a minimally healthy meal. What was I looking for?

Is it enough?

Preschoolers eat about 1000 calories a day. Then their requirements increase, from around 1200 kcal/day for a four year old to as much as 2200 kcal/day for a large, active 16-18 year old. For an active kid of 8 or 9 years old who needs about 1400 calories a day, divided by three, that’s around 466 calories per meal.

Find out what your kids are supposed to need according to the charts---heck, do you know what you need?---and keep an eye on what they naturally eat, without prodding, to confirm that figure. If you’re always monitoring their food consumption, you’ll notice that kids will go through phases where they eat more or less. These are normal; if you’re used to these, you will know if some other change is cause for alarm.

Always offer enough. We take our cues for what to eat from serving sizes. When you pack your kid’s lunch, you’re sending a lesson on what to eat and how much. See what comes back: lots of kids won’t bother to dump the leftovers. If there’s nothing there, day after day, ask whether they’re eating it, giving it away, or throwing it out.

Is it healthy? Will they eat it?

I feel like these are related questions, because the answers to both come down to what you typically make and serve at home. What you eat is a powerful model. If you want your kids to eat good food and make wise food choices, you have to show them by doing it, yourself, most or all of the time.

Being raised on Wonder bread isn’t a life sentence, but it’s hard to break. It took me years of cooking for myself, experimenting with cigarettes and fast food in my twenties, before I came around to a way of eating that was healthy and all my own.

When I study those cute bento boxes from the mommy bloggers, I wonder how much they resemble what they feed their kids at home. In The Huffington Post not long ago, registered dieticians admitted to feeding their kids crap, saying their kids won’t eat healthy food. How did this come to be? At some point, these mothers must have given their kids this unhealthy food they now can’t do without: babies aren’t born clutching a bag of Cheez-Its. Why do these RDs sound so bewildered about how their kids got so addicted to junk food? I know: it’s because the parents don’t eat what they wish their kids did.

Is it balanced?

There were foods my parents enjoyed that we thought were weird and wouldn’t touch---foods they made occasionally, like BLTs or eggplant parmigiana---not the stuff we ate every week. Those foods, we ate without complaint: baked chicken with Shake N’ Bake coating, and London broils coated with garlic powder, pasta with red sauce and meatballs. Lunches were sandwiches on white bread. Breakfasts were cereal, French toast on Sundays. On the whole, not many vegetables, and too much processed food: very typical for Americans.

What does a balanced meal look like? I look for balance in three ways: calories, macronutrients, and food groups. I’ll cover these next week.
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