For many parents, the most challenging thing about school isn’t picking up the kids from soccer practice or making sure they get their homework done. It’s packing all those school lunches. Why bother? Because many school cafeterias still serve meals that are loaded with fat and sugar (though they are getting better). Instead of stressing out about what to feed your kid this week, follow these expert tips for packing the perfect school lunch. (And don’t forget to give yourself a break: it’s OK to send lunch money now and then.)
1. Think outside the (lunch) box.
Don’t get caught in the lunch box grind. There’s no reason a school lunch has to be dull or unappetizing. Make lunch fun by mixing things up. Cut up sandwiches made with whole-grain bread into fun shapes, or make deli meat pinwheels by wrapping meat and cheese together. Keep it fun with this recipe for peanut butter, banana and cranberry sushi. Watch this video with registered dietitian Samantha Heller for more yummy tips.
2. Switch things up.
If your kids keep bringing home uneaten bags of lunch, consider giving them options. Each morning fill small containers or a Bento box with different foods – think broccoli trees, trail mix or cheese cubes – so they can choose what they like. Here are some other quick and creative lunch box suggestions. Ask your child to bring home what they don’t eat, too – it’s a good way to judge what works at lunchtime and what doesn’t. Just remember – no guilt trips!
3. Make your kid the chef.
Let your child pack her own lunch. Offer a variety of pre-approved choices and let her decide what goes in the bag. Or let her help with the prep – whether it’s making the sandwich or cutting up pieces of cheese to serve with crackers. You can even ask your children to pick out which fruits and vegetables they want to eat. When kids have a say about what goes into their lunch, they’ll be more likely to eat up.
4. Keep it healthy.
Lunch should rev up kids for the rest of their day, not weigh them down. Follow these three rules for an energizing lunch. Skip the juice drinks, even those made with real juice. They are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, which can throw off the body’s weight-regulating mechanisms. Instead pack your kids water or low-fat milk. Also, cut the processed meats. They are brimming with saturated fat, sodium and preservatives. Find out other lunch box no-nos.
5. Keep food safety in mind.
Start with the right gear. Choose a lunch box that’s insulated (preferably with a reusable freezer pack) to keep the lunch fresh and cool. (Be careful when choosing plastic food and drink containers, too.) Always remember to wash your hands before preparing your child’s lunch, and clean the lunch box between uses. If you include perishable items such as yogurt, cheese or cut up fruits and veggies, make sure they remain chilled at 40°F. Swap out foods that spoil easily with more shelf-stable options like trail mix, carrot sticks or whole fruit. Finally, make sure you rinse both ready-to-eat fruits and fruits with a peel in cold water. Washing the outer layer of all fruits eliminates harmful bacteria that can spread during peeling. (Consider organic when buying these fruits and vegetables.)