It's challenging to pack a school lunch for your child that will satisfy both you and your child. Make packing a school lunch easier on your conscience, your wallet, and your kids’ taste buds with easy tips from a registered dietician.
When you were young and single, preparing lunch was easy: tuna on crackers, a slice of leftover pizza, SpaghettiOs (hey, it may not be gourmet, but it’s good). But once you become a parent, the word “lunch” takes on a new meaning. Sometimes packing school lunches feels like sprinting a nine-month marathon. Between what they want, what you want them to want, what’s good for the environment, and what’s within your budget, things can get complicated.
But packing a nourishing, eco-friendly, budget-savvy lunch is doable. This back-to-school primer is loaded with simple, creative ideas both you and your kids will feel good about.
|“Between what they want, what you want them to want, what’s good for the environment, and what’s within
your budget, things can get complicated.”
One average-sized middle school creates more than 40,000 pounds of lunch waste a year—that’s 67 pounds of waste per child. Parents can play a role in helping the environment by packing waste-free lunches, from investing in reusable containers to buying economy-sized snacks.
As an alternative to plastic bags, pack your kids’ food in reusable containers (bonus: They come in fun colors, patterns, and styles). You could even try Japanese bento boxes, which prompt you to serve a variety of foods in appropriate portion sizes.
Paper lunch sacks may be the norm, but every year enough paper is thrown away to make a 12-foot-high wall stretching from New York to California. Tossing an ice pack into an insulated lunch tote helps reduce waste and keep food cold until lunchtime. Options abound, from soft purses and animal-shaped shoulder bags to space-saving Dabbawalla Snack Sacks that fit easily inside a backpack.
To keep your child hydrated, consider buying reusable water bottles like the Bobble, which has a built-in water filter. Let them pick out their favorite style—they’ll be more apt to drink out of it if they like the bottle. Check out nymetroparents.com/bottle for a few options we love.
Make food fun.
Kids, like adults, want to eat food that looks good. Pre-packaged meals may be attractive, but they’re often loaded with sodium, fat, and sugar. If you make lunch at home, you get to control the ingredients. These kid-approved quick and simple prep tricks will amp up lunch’s fun factor while still keeping the meal fresh and healthy:
Dips: Pair pre-cut veggies with a tasty dip (ranch dressing, hummus, and pesto are favorites). Serve fruit slices with almond butter or vanilla yogurt.
Kabobs: Older children love food on a stick, so skewer some chunks of fruit to dunk in yogurt and granola.
Shapes: Use cookie cutters to transform fruit and sandwiches into stars and hearts. A 2010 study in Appetite, a nutrition research journal, found that children wanted to eat twice as much fruit when it was cut into shapes.
Lightened-Up “Lunchables:” Take a cue from Oscar Mayer, and deconstruct your child’s favorite lunch. Assemble chunks of cheese, whole-grain crackers, roast turkey, and a packet of mustard. Alternatively, pack baked breaded chicken strips with two containers of sauces like barbecue and ketchup, string cheese, a clementine, and whole grain pretzels.
Crazy Colors: If she’s drawn to day-glo yogurt, create a healthier homemade version by blending lowfat milk with high-protein Greek yogurt, ice, a drizzle of honey, and brightly colored berries. Freeze the smoothie in mini muffin tins for creamy ice pucks that melt into fruit slush by lunchtime or pour into Kinderville’s Little Bites Ice Pop Molds for a squeezable treat.
Nicknames: Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating, found that giving food a fun name increases the likelihood that kids will eat it. When researchers called peas “power peas,” twice as many kids helped themselves. Instead of corn on the cob, try slicing the cob into rounds and serving “corn tires,” or appeal to their wild side by renaming broccoli “dinosaur trees.”
Leftover Makeovers: Roast chicken by night becomes a chicken salad sandwich by day: Toss chunks of white meat with mayo, celery, and sliced red grapes. Or roll deli meat with lettuce, tomato, and cranberry sauce in wrap bread and slice into small rolls to create sandwich “sushi.” Pack them tightly in a bento box to mimic a takeout container.
Price check! When shopping, check if the economy size is a better deal than the smaller bags by comparing their unit prices. Ignore the total price—whichever item has a lower unit price is the bargain. Portioning cookies at home from a family-sized bag is more cost-effective and eco-friendly than buying snack-size bags.
Companies pay to showcase their product on the middle shelf because it’s where your eye goes first. Those items tend to be the most expensive, so look above and below the product to find a better deal.
Save money for what matters. Don’t splurge on whole-grain products unless the ingredients label lists a “whole” grain first. Examples include whole wheat, brown rice, and oats. Products labeled “multigrain” or “wheat” may be mostly white flour with just a sprinkling of grains.
The same goes for organic fruits and vegetables: Focus on produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue, including apples, celery, and strawberries. Make organic shopping easier by downloading the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Shopper’s Guide app to your smartphone: ewg.org/foodnews/guide.
Caroline Kaufman, MS, RD, is a registered dietician, nutrition consultant, and freelance writer. For more of her expert advice, check out her blog, Sweet Foodie, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.