The Good Lunch

The quick answer:  School is starting.  Give the kids a healthy lunch.


Last week we discussed how some things are unknowable—too complex for the human mind to sort out, PhD or not.  If we are humble enough to accept this, we just might be on the path to wisdom. 

The complexity of the immune system and the rise of the autoimmune diseases were presented as examples of the unknowable.  Ditto for the related and ever increasing 4-A diseases of autism, ADHD, asthma and allergy.  (A new study was presented last week as evidence that autism—the fastest rising diagnosis of the 4-A’s—is not caused by vaccinations.  Unfortunately, though they’re confident it’s not vaccinations, the cause remains unknown.)  It was also noted that the #1 killer, atherosclerotic heart disease, might be triggered by an autoimmune reaction.

Algorithms are simple rules that allow us to deal with complexity, the unknowable.  We suggested a two-part algorithm for dealing with autoimmune diseases:

  1. Strengthen the immune system by living the healthiest life possible, and
  2. Protect the immune system by minimizing toxic exposure.

Food Allergies

Food allergies are on the rise—they’ve doubled in the last decade—and that’s a troubling omen for the nation’s health.  If food causes an adverse immune response it’s considered an allergen.  (If the reaction doesn’t involve the immune system, you have food intolerance.)  The common food allergens form an innocuous but potentially deadly group: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.  Children in the first two years are especially vulnerable, so pediatricians guide the introduction of these foods as the immune system develops.  The reported risk of a food allergy is 6-8%, but diagnosis is crude.

But there’s an opposite view.  A 2008 study of Jewish children in England and Israel found a 10-fold greater risk of peanut allergy in England, where peanuts are avoided in the first year, vs. Israel where they are commonly consumed by the end of the first year.  A study just issued found that allergic response (measured by immunoglobulin E, or IgE, which rises quickly in the first six months of life) is lower in children with prenatal pet exposure (i.e., the mom lived around a dog or cat during pregnancy).  This leads to the hygiene theory of allergy that says living in an ultra clean environment deprives children of unknown protections, thus a higher risk for allergies.  It’s a good theory if you don’t like to dust.

Food allergies—especially peanuts, tree nuts, or shell foods—can lead to anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that requires urgent medical attention and a strategy for protection from future attacks.  Know anyone that carries an EpiPen? 

There is a familial influence: If one parent has allergies there is a 48% risk for the child; if both parents are allergic the risk rises to 70%.  The elimination diet is the safest strategy for diagnosed food allergies and intolerances—simply avoid whatever makes you ill.  In the case of milk, soy, and wheat allergies this is difficult as they are used in a wide variety of processed foods—another reason to do your own cooking.  Children may grow out of food allergies—especially milk, egg, soy and wheat allergies—but adults typically don’t.

Prevention is better than treatment—this could be the motto for this blog—so the big question is how to prevent allergies.  There is evidence that breast feeding the first four months is protective of milk allergies but there’s isn’t clear evidence of protection against other allergies.  Perhaps it’s a complexity issue, but we just don't know how to prevent allergies.

Bottom line:  The prevention of allergies is another of those unknowable things—Science doesn’t yet have an answer and likely won’t in our lifetime.  But as allergies have increased with the modern lifestyle, it makes sense that protection lies in living by the olden ways, beginning with diet.  In our view, this is especially important during the years of possible conception.  

School Lunches

As school has started for some, we should talk about healthy lunches.  For the last year or so there has been a public debate about the terrible things served in school cafeterias.  Maybe you saw Jamie Oliver (the Food Revolution guy) crossing swords with the Los Angeles school board.  The menu items I read about are revolting plus there’s the knavery of schools selling pouring rights to the soda companies. 

It’s not our policy to attack Food Inc.—other critics are doing a fine job.  So we’re not going to say anything about the Kraft line of Lunchables except to invite you to go on line and read the ingredient list.  Scary.

Budget wisdom:  Here are some affordable ideas for your kid’s lunch “sack”.  Consult the kids; involve them in preparation as part of their cooking education: 

  • Fruits are easy: apple, orange, banana, grapes, dates or dried mangos with nuts, there are lots of choices, you can even make a fruit cup. Fruit can also be added to the low-sugar yogurts.
  • Veggies like carrot sticks, celery, or hummus with cucumbers or cherry tomatoes are all good. 
  • Sandwiches are a little harder but if you use an insulated lunch box with ice packs, there are more choices:  PB&J is a classic, or try PB on banana bread.  Preserved deli meats have been sandwich favorites but limit use to once a week as suggested in this post.    The tuna fish sandwich is another favorite; add lots of chopped celery; the lettuce can keep the bread from getting soggy. 
  • Try sandwich alternatives, like leftovers from favorite foods.  You can also use pita pockets with cheese, or a quesadilla. When winter comes, warm soup in a thermos is comforting.
  • Sweets should be a treat, an exception, not a daily expectation.  Cookies made from healthy recipes also contain a bit of mom's love.

Please share what you to do to make an interesting but healthy lunch for the kids.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (20)

I use these ziploc divided lunch containers for my kids http://www.amazon.com/Ziploc-Divided-Container-Rectangle/dp/B002LFLYT8. They are perfect. I fill them up with veggies, fruit, yogurt, and then a sandwich on whole wheat or a wrap. It has really helped me to focus on filling up each square with healthy lunch items. And I never have to use plastic baggies.

August 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie

I've been wanting to ask your opinion on this topic for a while now. At 4 weeks we discovered that my newborn daughter was allergic to milk, wheat and soy. I believe that breastfeeding is important, especially to improve her odds of quickly outgrowing the allergies, which means that I must be wheat/dairy/soy free. As I have been avoiding those foods I have been finding more and more people that feel eating dairy is not healthy regardless of allergy status and I'm trying to reconcile that as well as my own experiences (less severe colds, modest weight loss) with my eating beliefs (Challenge #1). Also, I've been struggling to find a variety of whole foods to eat! We previously ate little meat, but replaced it with large quantities of dairy (cheesy, creamy sauces etc.) Now I'm having a hard time being satisfied, and having beans 5x a week is getting monotonous (Challenge #2). The dairy replacers (almond and rice milk/ice cream, non-dairy margarine) have a long list of funky ingredients that I don't love, but I feel like it's the only thing that keeps me sane, and lets me participate in the little traditions I didn't realized I loved so much (cereal in the morning, ice cream for birthdays, etc.) Not to mention the increased cost for wheat free breads and pastas (Challenge #3). I'm interested to hear your thoughts on these challenges.

Thank you!

August 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenaMalia

JenaMalia, you could try making your own nut milk. My sister makes her own with brazil nuts. I don't think it is as hard as it sounds and then you don't have all the "stuff" in it.

Is there a difference between lactose intolerance and milk allergies? My husband didn't drink milk for years because he had horrible digestive stress from diary. We switched to raw milk about a year ago. One day (maybe 6 months ago) he made chocolate milk for the kids and made too much. So he drank it. He waited for a reaction, but it never happened. He has found that raw milk causes no problems for him. My daughter's ezcema cleared up as well after switching- and this was after we moved to the arid desert which should have made it worse. So I am wondering if they had a milk allergy or just lactose intolerance?

As for lunches, we are trying to make them even more healthy this school year. Last year I started making my own whole spelt bread and jams. This year I want to make my own nut butters as well. We are also trying to have more variety. PB&J is not cutting it for them anymore. We sent carrot sticks today and they loved that! You'd think it was candy with the reaction it got. More fruits and veggies are on our list of foods. Dried pineapple is a favorite at our house, and makes a great snack. Snacks are another thing I have to pack each day as our kids eat a late lunch at school. I am interested to see what others do!

August 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

I have developed an egg white intolerance within the past year. It's no picnic. I can't anything with raw or softly cooked egg white. The pits! I can usually tolerate egg white when completely cooked into something else (like a cake.) The reaction to the egg whites is getting worse. I may have to start carrying an EpiPen. Ridiculous.

We're lucky enough that our school district is concentrating on making healthy foods cooked from scratch on premises. Their school lunches are wonderful--a sample day: Oriental chicken rice bowl with steamed summer squash; plums and strawberries; wheat dinner roll.

I do a mix of sack and school lunch. My son does not tire of PB&H on whole wheat. He eats it every day. My rule is a fruit or veg with each lunch, sometimes both. I rarely do a sweet treat. I try to make it interesting (since he prefers the PB) by varying the snack and veg. Pretzels, dried apricots, banana chips, cheeses. At the Japanese dollar store we found soy sauce containers. We love to squeeze vinaigrette into these tiny containers so that they can dip their carrots or celery into the sauce. Love the Press and Seal wrap for making small "baggies" for small quantities of food. One way I make sure their lunch is healthy is to not buy drinks that are "cocktails" or only a small percentage of juice with a laundry list of sweeteners, sugars, artificial colors and flavors.

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarina

As a kid, my lunches consisted of a sandwich, carrot sticks, celery stalks and fruit juice. When I got a bit older, they included a tub of fromage frais as well. Occasionally, when the weather was cooler, we got a thermos with noodles or soup.

These days, I make lunch for me and my husband every day. If there's access to a microwave, then we have some leftovers from the previous night's dinner, if not, then a sandwich. They also include carrot sticks, snow peas, nuts, and kiwi fruit, with cheese, crackers and baby tomatoes for him, and fromage frais and dried apricots for me.

We started having home made lunches a couple of years ago when my husband changed jobs and no longer got subsidised lunches. It has worked out quite well for us. It's cheaper and healthier than buying our lunch and we're not tempted by crisps or sweets available in other lunch places.

I have found that the Japanese bento idea works really well for us and gives us a good balanced diet. A lot of people can make quite elaborate lunches, using food to create cartoon characters etc, but I simply don't have time for that in the morning! I have found the various bento sites around the internet to be very useful in coming up with great ideas for lunch box food. My favourites are:

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

My kids' friends are always jealous of their home lunches. The truth is that most of my kids' friends throw away half of their school lunch. I try to vary the main course from PB&J, one of their favorites is wheat tortilla roll-ups. There is always a fruit or vegetable and for the 'snack' we throw in things like string cheese, LaraBars, homemade granola bars or wheat crackers with cheese. I also include a sweet treat a couple of days a week - but a small one. To make their lunches fun I always include a joke or fun quote. I have sent a plastic tea set in my girls' lunches so they can have their own tea party in the lunchroom. My kids love having home lunches and I love knowing what they are eating. It's a win-win situation.

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerb

JenaMalia, you are dealing with some bothersome challenges. Fortunately, they should be temporary. We have a post coming up on milk. Milk doesn't agree with everyone, though some do better on raw milk as Laura noted.

This might be a time when you could eat a little more meat, balanced with salads, for variety. I know beans can be a little boring, but the meat does help. Agree with you about the sketchy ingredients in the milk substitutes.

Perhaps our readers could suggest a recipe for non-wheat bread. Recipe anyone?

Best to you,

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Skip, Love the blog - I've been following you for a few weeks now. Thank you for creating this forum about healthy eating and lifestyle that incorporates the word of wisdom!

I also wanted to point out that the vaccine-autism link has never been proven. (Wasn't sure if you already knew this from your wording above) The one falsified 1998 Lancet article suggesting a possible correlation was retracted last year and its main author's medical license was revoked. Researchers investigating the possibility of vaccine-induced autism since 1998 never shown any correlation, moreover causation between the two.

Last, I echo JenaMalia's thoughts. My one-year-old has milk and citrus sensitivies, despite doing our best during pregnancy and postnatally to prevent this from happening (healthy diet, breastfeeding, letting him play in the dirt some :) ). We have begun introducing soy milk into his diet, although I am not crazy about this processed option. We would like to try goat's milk since my hubby is against raw cows milk (it is illegal to consume raw milk or participate in a cow share where we live).

I look forward to the upcoming post and thoughts on dairy, milk substitutes, and milk processing!

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Angela, nice to hear from you. Like others, I have followed the vaccination debate. There is a general suspicion about the side effects of vaccines that goes beyond the data—perhaps because the medical establishment isn't always right when they line up in support of what they do, and because their record at admitting their mistakes is a little clouded. I'm not anti-vaccination, but I am cautious.

Regarding milk, I expect a lively discussion. Readers have been rubbing their hands in anticipation of the milk post almost since the beginning of this blog. I think it comes up in November. Best to you.

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

One thing we've been doing lately is mixing unsweetened yogurt with unsweetened applesauce (about half and half) with a bit of cinnamon. I feel like this is a great replacement for overly sweetened yogurts and my 3-year old son approves.

Also, the other day we made peanut butter and apple sandwiches (with thinly sliced apples). They tasted great and I was happy to cut out jam since it has so much sugar. Even the Smuckers simply fruit has fruit syrup which I'm beginning to think is as bad for you as regular sugar.

I'm excited for the milk post; we've cut out most milk products except butter, yogurt and cheese, which I feel are easier to digest

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsey

Kate you and I are birds of a feather. I love doing bentos and have visited those sites often for ideas. I also visit this one:

And started my own just for kicks:

Having lunches this way has gone a looooong way to helping me get my veggies in and staying away from the cookies!

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRill

What a timely post! When I went in to my daughter's school to register her a couple weeks ago, I found out we qualified for free lunch. I hadn't really thought about that before and it was very tempting--for a couple minutes. But then I thought about how much healthier the way we eat is from what they would serve at school and how I would have no control whatsoever on what my daughter ate away from home. She is prone to viruses and I am doing all I can to boost her immune system; school lunch wouldn't help that. She is not yet seven but I am trying to instill in her knowledge and understanding of what is healthful and what to avoid--and she gets it. Why sabotage my efforts this early in her school career? I may as well take advantage of that fact that right now she loves milk, my homemade whole wheat bread, and likes to discover what else I include in her lunch each day (fruit, homemade whole wheat banana bread sweetened with honey, homemade sugarless cookie, plain yogurt sweetened with honey, etc). I am so glad I decided to stay committed to taking those few extra minutes each day to pack my daughter a healthy lunch.

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatrina

Thank you for the informative post. This is the first year I have a kiddo at school all day, so healthy school lunches have been high on my list lately. I found this post very practical and helpful: http://www.trainermomma.com/2011/08/dos-and-dont-of-packing-school-lunches-for-the-kids/

August 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTish

Last year I started cooking for my daughter in the mornings - chicken stir frys, pasta salad with chicken, tomato soup and grilled cheese - she would eat some of it for breakfast and then she and I would take it for lunch. She loves it, it is so healthy and she is satisfied. I pack her lunch into those glass jam jars with the fun gingham lids - she can heat it up in the microwave and have a hot lunch. The jars are small and sturdy - we haven't had a single break, even though she can be a bit careless. The only plastic in her lunch is the yogurt and she wants us to learn how to make that. I include a small green salad and a container of fruit. She has only taken water to drink since she left pre-school. I use a double-walled stainless steel bottle. It was pricey, but there is still ice in it at the end of the day and it is sturdy. It was harder to pack her a healthy lunch when she was younger - managing containers was the biggest obstacle. I am hoping that the Milk discussion will include yogurt - we struggle to find healthy options at the grocery store that are still appealing to a kid who doesn't really enjoy eating the equivalent of sour cream.

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

There are some great ideas here and in the comments. Thanks for the much needed ideas as I am making lunches for the first time for my new kindergardener.
So far I think we are doing a pretty good job with variety and healthy ideas but the problem I am seeing is time. Meaning, there is not enough time to actually eat the lunch. My daughter only gets about 20 minutes for lunch and for a slow eater (and most people, I think) this just doesn't seem like enough time. A sandwich will come home with one bite out of it b/c that's "all I had time for".
I don't see the school lengthening lunchtime anytime soon so we are now trying to find healthy, wholesome and fast lunch ideas.
love your blog, Skip!

September 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterliz

Oh my, you hit on a bunch of things that are issues we face daily! My daughter has all sorts of allergies. We had to go on a complete elimation diet of all possible allergens (while I was breastfeeding her, so it was a family adventure!). Anyway, though I breastfed her much longer than normal and did everything that we knew to be right, we still deal with it. She currently can't have any dairy, soy, or grains, plus peanuts, most nuts, and other random things. But she's a different child than she was before we cleaned up her diet. Anyway, I'm not terribly comfortable with soy products in general, and I agree on the milk substitutes being a little too processed. Know though that you can make almost anything you want if you're willing to put forth the effort. Nut milk is very easy to make, and then you have the raw benefits as well. You can even make coconut ice cream. It's tough, but it's doable. I was competely dairy free for a long time, and honestly if I didn't love dairy I'd go back to it. Being grain free for those two months I felt the best I think I've ever felt.

About vaccines: I don't mean to incite something--it's such a touchy issue. There are just a lot of factors, and I doubt it's vaccines alone. It just seems like we're doing something that isn't right when you look at what's happening to our children. So it's a balance. I think you made a really good point in the comments, that we don't all trust what doctors tell us. I personally don't trust the AAP on this when some of their biggest contributors are the companies that make the vaccines. I think that's why we have to make decisions for our own families, doing the best we can.

September 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily V

As far as causes of ADHD go, there have been several prominent pediatricians (including Marc Weisbluth) that have been theorizing that poor sleep habits are to be attributed to the rise of ADHD. Sleep is another important aspect of our health that is so essential yet so overlooked.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth


I love your site. Carrie referred me to your site. It is a wonderful resource and I enjoy reading your thoughts and insights on nutrition. You are right on! I would love to hear what you have to say about dairy. Life is busy but every little thing counts, especially with nutrition. As far as allergies, I work at a children's hospital and allergies are definitely a concern. Your research is accurate with data now reporting that more allergies are arising possibly due to limiting exposure to children. Most children who have a milk allergy is not actually an allergy but an intolerance. Their bodies haven't matured enough to tolerate the milk. There are the exception that do develop into an actual allergy, but I think these are the exception and not the majority. Some doctors believe what has been said to be an allergy is just an intolerance, hence why most outgrow the allergy. Babies are the most difficult to diagnose because it may have nothing to do with the food but more a fussy, colic baby (Carrie could tell you that). But then again, is the fussy, colic because of intolerance? I guess you won't know until you trial limiting dairy or other foods in the mother or formula.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJill

Like a few other commenters, I also exclusively breastfed my son for a while (about 9 1/2 months before he had any formula), and he still turned out to have a milk and egg allergy, so it's definitely not a cure-all for everyone. I look forward to your milk post because I feel like milk is a complicated food, especially when it comes to allergies and intolerances and I'm always interested in learning more! Love your blog!

September 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I didn't read all the posts - but my kids enjoyed some homemade popcorn in a baggie in their lunches.

September 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

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