Cultivating Healthy Habits: Helping Families Access Healthy Food Options

Over the course of a typical K-12 education, more than 2,000 lunches will be packed or purchased for each child. Even with the

Fresh Foods Photo2 Cultivating Healthy Habits: Helping Families Access Healthy Food Options Photobest of intentions, packing a nutritious lunch can become a challenge for many parents who juggle their hectic schedules as well as their kids’ school and activities.

In fact, a recent Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine study found that only 27 percent of lunches brought from home met at least three of the five National School Lunch Program standards. The study also found that students’ lunches often consisted of packaged foods, like snack foods and desserts, and almost a quarter of the lunches lacked an entrée item, such as a sandwich.

To help, many schools are empowering kids to make better choices. Farm to School programs, which are being taught to 23.5 million students, teach about fresh, local fruit and vegetable choices. Other programs, like Teaching Gardens, actually serve as a laboratory for elementary school kids to learn about growing and harvesting food.

“When children grow their own produce, they are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables,” says Garth Graham, MD, MPH, is president of the Aetna Foundation whose organization is supporting Teaching Gardens. “As a board certified cardiologist and president of the Aetna Foundation, I have seen first-hand the challenges associated with helping children adopt healthier behaviors, especially during the back to school season.  By incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet and physical activity into your family’s daily routine, you will see how small changes make a big difference in overall health.”

So how can your family commit to better lunches? Here’s some tips on how to pack a better brown bag.

  1. Don’t make it complicated. Repack dinner items into sandwiches for the next day. It will seem like a totally different meal.
  2. Be stealth about health. Pasta doesn’t have to be bad. Puree some zucchini or spinach into your sauce. Kids don’t have to recognize their always eating well.
  3. Get buy-in. One of the big complaints about healthy lunches is that the kids don’t eat them. Give kids the power to choose their foods, but guide their choices. It doesn’t have to be bad food against good.
  4. Don’t be a martyr. There’s no doubt pre-packaged foods are easier. But there are time-savers that are healthy, too. Pre-packaged veggies, yogurt sticks and whole grain crackers can make brown-bagging easier, without sacrificing nutrition.


Garth Graham, MD, MPH, is president of the Aetna Foundation. In his role, Dr. Graham is responsible for the Foundation’s philanthropic work, including its grant-making strategies to improve the health of people from underserved communities and increase their access to high-quality health care. A national authority on health disparities and health care quality, Dr. Graham is a frequent spokesperson for the Foundation on health care and health equity issues. Dr. Graham previously served as deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he also led the Office of Minority Health. To learn more about the Aetna Foundation’s initiatives to help build a healthier world, please visit: