Well it’s back to school and the children are leaving home with packed lunches again. Packing a school lunch that is delicious, nutritious, and fun to eat can be a challenge for any parent, especially in the morning. But you succeed if you keep these tips in mind, and with practice, preparing the best school lunches can be as easy as reciting your ABCs.
Make it balanced. Make a list of your child’s favorite foods from the 5 food groups including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein foods, and dairy groups. To score a good grade, supply at least one choice from each food group in their lunch. Be sure to rotate through a variety of choices from the food groups to pique your child’s interest in exploring what’s for lunch each day.
Fruits. Consider some dried fruits such as apricots, cherries, mango, and boxed raisins. Unsweetened applesauce is sweet enough, but different fruits or cinnamon are also blended now with the apples. Many stores even sell apple sauce crushers that blend apple and carrot purees that are perfect for freezing and defrost in their lunch sacks in time to be enjoyed as a chilled slush at noon. Kids also love grapes, mini bananas and those small, easy-to-peel seedless oranges. Cut fruit into small pieces to avoid choking risks. You can opt for boxes of 100% fruit juice, but skip the beverages labeled fruit “drink”, “ade” or “punch”.
Grains. Whole wheat bread, bagels, crackers, bread sticks, pretzels, soft tortillas or flatbreads, baked muffins, crispy rice or popcorn cakes, toaster waffles, or cooked pasta, steamed rice, or leftover pizza are all good choices
Protein foods. Lean, sliced meats such as ham, turkey, roast beef or leftover meatloaf, barbecued or grilled chicken legs, hard boiled eggs, chili with beans, bean or lentil soups, or the ever popular peanut butter might be what your child wishes you’d pack for them.
Vegetables. Corn, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, or roasted potatoes from dinner the night before are all great options. Creamy hummus and salsa are great ways to sneak in vegetables as dips for crispy fruits, breadsticks and pretzels. Fresh salads might be your child’s choice. It’s worth the small cost to purchase those little plastic dressing cups with fitted lids to send the low-fat dressing alongside the salad container. This allows your child to drizzle dressing over their crisp greens at lunch which prevents a soggy salad. Maybe your little ones actually enjoys consuming mini-cans of vegetable juice blends.
Dairy. Yogurt cups or popular yogurt squeeze tubes can be placed in lunch bags frozen and will defrost by noon. Cheese sticks come in varieties such as string and cheddar. Parents can also just send coins along with their children because schools sell low-fat milk at lunchtime.
Make it fun. Taste and fun are important considerations for children. So just as important as what you pack is how you pack it.
Skewered chunks. Who said protein has to be served between two slices of bread? You can use wooden or plastic skewers to fasten slices or chunks of meat, poultry or cheese with assorted cool, crisp fruits or vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, cucumber, celery, mushrooms or bell peppers. They’re colorful and fun to take apart as you eat.
Make a sandwich a “shape-wich”. Cookie cutters can do double duty to transform square bread into favorite shapes. Or use them to press out favorite shapes for sliced meats and cheeses and serve your child’s sandwiches open-faced.
Mix n’ match. Who can each just one? Send an assortment of different small sandwiches for your child to enjoy. Vary the fillings, or flavors or texture of the bread. Cut the sandwiches into halves, thirds or quarters and pack together a sampling of each.
Get the kids involved. Keep in mind that a lunch that appeals to you may not interest your child, and remember no lunch is nourishing if it is not eaten or traded. So if you want your child to eat their lunch, keep in mind your three Rs: Recognize, Respect and Request.
Recognize your child’s food preferences. No one wants to eat something they don’t like. For example, consider sandwiches are easy to eat which is especially nice for a child who wants to get out to recess as soon as possible. Soups and salads are better choices for those who enjoy sitting and talking at length with their BFF.
Respect your child’s views. Most children have to deal with peer pressure. Your child may become anxious about eating anything that could appear to be “different”, “weird” “stinky” or “geeky”, which can be almost anything depending on the pervasive school culture. Be sure to respect this and provide foods your child feels comfortable eating in a social situation.
Request your child’s assistance. Take them grocery shopping and set aside time to prepare lunch together the night before. This saves time and reduces stress in the morning, A child is more likely to consume what they have chosen and helped prepare.
Plus it provides an opportunity for one-on-one time for the parent and child to bond. Do you know your child’s favorite colorful vegetable or fruit? Who do they eat lunch with? What do they feel comfortable eating at with their friends at school? Find the answers to these questions and many more fun facts about your child through these casual conversations.
Keep it safe. Packing a school lunch requires some consideration of the fact that it might be left standing at room temperature for several hours before being eaten.
• Use a commercial freezing gel or an insulated thermos. Packing frozen individual cups of yogurt or juice cartons can help keep the perishable foods cool and prevent spoilage. Many sandwiches with fillings such as peanut butter, cheese, and meats can be packed while frozen. By lunch time these foods or drinks will be thawed and ready to be enjoyed. Just don’t freeze sandwiches containing lettuce or tomatoes because they won’t be appetizing. Pack these sandwich additions separately.
• Be sure to wash your hands, utensils, cutting board and other work areas clean.
• Pack only thoroughly cooked perishable foods. The next day user of leftovers is acceptable, but not week old or mystery-aged leftovers.
• Always wash your child’s lunchbox and insulated tote after each day’s use. Some neoprene or other fabric sacks can be laundered in the washing machine.
• Pack an individually wrapped hand-wipe. Encourage your child to use it and wash their hands before eating.
Be a good role model. What your child sees you eat is a more compelling and powerful action then what to tell your child to eat. By making smarter choices yourself, you and your child can each enjoy a healthy body, healthy mind, better mood, better focus and concentration, and better nutrition for a lifetime of learning.
Written by: Alicia Grabowski-Drozd, MPH, RD
Having a father with hypertension piqued Alicia’s interest in nutrition and is the reason why she became a Registered Dietitian. She is self-employed as President of Healthy U. It’s her job and her pleasure to promote health in people of all ages. Alicia is the personal chef to her two children and has lots of experience packing school lunches. Alicia also helps her students at a local community college comprehend the value of nutrition throughout the life cycle. She doesn’t miss a beat as a certified American Heart Association CPR instructor and conducts CPR and first aid classes. According to the Bee Gee’s song, her training classes are helping to increase the number of people Stayin’ Alive. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional questions or comments.