Q. My daughter is just starting school and I want to make sure she continues to eat healthy food. What should I pack for lunch?
A. School lunches can be tricky. When you pack your own lunch for work, you most likely have access to a microwave, but most elementary school children do not. On top of that, most schools are peanut-safe, at minimum, or otherwise completely nut-safe. The days when you could slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a hurry are over.
But this doesn’t have to mean that easy, nutritious lunches that your child will actually eat are a thing of the past. With a little planning and creativity, packing school lunches can actually be easy.
Let’s start with the basics: food safety. It seems obvious, but worth remembering, how important it is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Invest in a sealed, insulated lunch box or thermos.
Next, think about the foods your child likes to eat at home and create portable versions of them for lunch. If you’re sending her with foods she is not familiar with or doesn’t enjoy, she is unlikely to eat them at school. Make a list of foods that she likes and create a menu cycle so that you don’t have to think about it.
Last month we talked about how to deal with picky eaters. Similarly, children are more likely to eat a lunch that they had a hand in packing. Let her contribute ideas and allow her to help choose what goes into her lunch bag. Would she prefer pasta or breadsticks? Couscous or quinoa? Tuna or bean salad? Allowing her to select between a few healthy options will increase the likelihood that her lunchbox will return home empty.
Keep an assortment of ready-to-go foods in the fridge like cut-up vegetables and fresh fruit, boiled eggs, low-sodium lunch meats, hummus, and cheese. Do the same for shelf-stable foods. Put crackers, seed-based trail mixes (if nuts are a no-go), and cereals into small containers or baggies.
Does she really like pasta? Why not make a cold noodle salad?
A huge fan of pizza? You can make pizza rolls.
If she loves instant noodle soup, you can also make your own (healthy!) version by combining rice noodles, vegetables, seasoning, and a protein (such as shredded cooked chicken or chickpeas) in a heat-safe container. She will just need to add hot water at lunchtime. If there’s no access to a kettle in the lunchroom, you can make this same meal in a thermos.
Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have time or inclination to sculpt her sandwich into a panda bear and cut her carrots into flowers like so many mommy blogs may suggest. But, a Bento-style lunchbox can make any homemade lunch feel like a special meal; it’s fun to have little containers filled with different foods, and you don’t have to buy a certain over-priced brand name yellow box of processed foods to achieve that. However, if you do, on occasion send your daughter to school with a boxed lunch from the supermarket, this doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
The goal should be healthy eating about 80 percent of the time. Allowing her to have treats the other 20 percent of the time helps her to learn how to balance ‘sometimes’ foods in her diet rather than teaching her to associate guilt or shame with foods. (Guilt and shame are emotions that should never be associated with food. But I digress… You just wanted to get some ideas for school lunches.)
The most important things to remember when packing school lunches are that a healthy meal should include at least three of the four food groups, and that these should be foods that your child enjoys. If you’re at a loss for specific lunch ideas, there are lots of resources out there. Do a quick search for blogs on the topic, check with your daughter’s teacher, or contact your local public health office. You’re bound to come away with some great inspiration.