As the new school year approaches and we’re bombarded with back-to-school sales and advertisements for everything from backpacks to paper clips, it’s time to focus on what your kids are going to be eating throughout their busy days. While convenience and portability are key components in the school lunch world, it’s crucial not to overlook the quality of the food we’re providing—whether through a bag lunch or by way of meals purchased on school lunch plans. Overall, I think it’s healthier to provide a lunch from home. That said, school lunch plans have come a long way in improving nutrition and reducing unhealthy food choices (i.e. replacing soda machines with salad bars).
If you choose to pack a lunch, here are some ideas and tips to help organize healthy, balanced fare that your kids will enjoy:
Fresh is best! While it may be appealing to have an arsenal of pre-packaged, so-called convenient lunch “kit” types of products, steer clear. While they’re touted as easy, portable and delicious, they’re expensive and unhealthy to boot. Spend the extra few minutes to put baby carrots, pretzels and an apple or clementine in a bag with a nutritious sandwich or wrap. It will be much more cost efficient and a great source of clean energy to get your kids through the day!
Preparation is everything. Mornings can be frenetic and rushed. To dial down the day’s stress, prepare your child’s lunch the night as part of your routine. Make a sandwich and pop it in the fridge. Set a lunch bag or thermal lunch sack on the counter with in any non-perishable items already inside. In the morning, all you have to do is put everything together and go. Easy, healthy AND convenient!
Keep things interesting! Never underestimate the power of surprise. When fresh berries come in season, for example, include a small, reusable container of them with your child’s lunch instead of the usual apple or banana. Or find some fun ways to spice up carrot sticks or celery by including a packet of hummus, salad dressing or cream cheese.
Remember after school snacks. The day’s food supply doesn’t end with lunch. It’s hard to find a kid that doesn’t have at least one after school activity on the docket, and their bodies and brains need a boost to meet those demands. If they get a healthy lunch but then have to resort to a donut or fast food choice after school, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Pack a non-perishable snack that they can munch on before the second part of their day starts. Not only will it give them energy, it will even out blood sugar levels so that they can stay awake through dinner and homework!
Fall for the individual serving, “lunch box ready” rip-off. If you take a minute to compare the cost of the full size bag of pretzels against the tray of mini bags, you’ll be pretty astounded. In about 30 seconds you can put a handful in a snack bag. Don’t pay for packaging when it really saves no time and costs you money.
Be surprised if you get some push back. Especially for young children, the cornucopia of brightly colored “lunch kits” at the cafeteria table can be cause for envy. Between the brightly colored labeling, catchy names and grandiose ad campaigns behind them—you might hear how you have to buy them the minute your child steps off the bus. Here’s the thing: declaring that they’re forbidden fruit isn’t your best play as a mom or dad. Better to consider allowing one a week but then stick to a healthy bag lunch the other four days. You never know—your child might come to realize that your lunches actually taste better AND that they feel better after eating them.
Leave out the fun! When my kids were younger, I put a note or drawing in their lunch bags each day. It sounds corny, but it let them know I was thinking of them and—as a bonus– usually provided a little comic relief (in case they were having one of those days). Now that’s something you can’t buy, and no other kid at the lunch table will have one!