Packing the “Right Stuff”


It’s that time of year again…your home is abuzz with talk of new teachers, homework, and of course, school lunch. Although some schools have improved the quality of cafeteria meals and snacks in recent years, many still fail to meet basic nutritional needs. The best way to ensure that your child is receiving a nutritious midday meal is to send her to school with a healthful, home-made lunch.


The words “home-made” can put panic into the hearts of many busy parents, but fear not: A healthful lunch from home can be stress free and prepared in just a couple of minutes. Plus, by serving fresh, wholesome foods, you will be teaching your child that nutritious foods are not only good for the body, they taste great, too:

Safety first. To ensure the safety of your child’s lunch, you want to keep cold foods cold. This means using an insulated lunchbox. You can also freeze certain foods (such as a yogurt and fruit smoothies) the night before. Packing a frozen food helps to keep other foods cold and it will thaw by lunchtime. You want to avoid packing hot foods, as they are difficult to keep warm for hours and hours, and this can present an opportunity for food-borne illness.

Get kids involved. Shopping and preparing food with your children is a great way to involve the whole family in a fun experience. Also, if kids are involved with the planning of their meals, they are more likely to be excited about eating them. For example, when grocery shopping, ask your child, “Do you want an apple, pear or grapes to take to school?” Have your children help you prepare lunch, too. Even young children can help out by using a spoon to spread peanut butter onto bread, or by wrapping up a sandwich and placing it in the lunchbox.

Keep food fun. You may want to pack a little note of encouragement to your child. One of the best things about having a home-made lunch is that it offers a special connection to the family in the middle of the day.

Make it nutritious. A packed lunch isn't automatically healthier than one offered at school. If you pack chocolate cake and potato chips, that's not a nutritious meal! Remember that the average 10-year-old child requires about 2000 calories per day, so your lunch should contain about 500-600 calories from high quality foods. This means offering a variety of choices, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats (like those found in seeds and nuts*). Use the “three-color” rule for children’s meals. For instance, with a ham and cheese rollup, you might want to include a side of sliced peppers and cherry tomatoes. Below are more guidelines to ensure that your child’s lunch is filled with the right balance of healthful foods.

—Choose fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are like hitting the jackpot when it comes to nutrition as they're packed with vitamins and fiber. It's a good idea to aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, so try to fit in two to three at lunch. One serving isn't a lot. For instance, a serving of baby carrots would be just 10 sticks. A fruit serving could be one medium orange. Fruits and vegetables that are exceptionally portable include apples, oranges, pears, clementines, bananas, raisins, dried cranberries, peaches, grapes, broccoli tips, baby carrots, sliced peppers, cherry tomatoes, and celery stalks. You could also “sneak” in more veggies by adding spinach leaves to a turkey roll-up or cucumber slices to a sandwich.

—Know your fats. Kids need some fat in their diets to stay healthy — it also helps keep them feeling full — but you want to emphasize the healthy fats when preparing meals and snacks. Healthy fats are found in nuts and seeds (such as walnuts, peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds), avocado, and certain oils like canola and olive. For children above age 5, stick with low-fat or part-skim dairy options. Dairy products are a terrific way of supplying calcium for growing bones, but they can also be a big source of saturated fat (the type you want to limit in older children and adults). Be sure to pack low-fat milk, part-skim string cheese, or reduced-fat Swiss slices instead of their full-fat counterparts.

—Let whole grains reign. "Grains" include breads, cereals, rice, and pasta. When it comes to good nutrition, it's clear that whole grains are better than refined grains as they include more fiber and B-vitamins. When choosing lunch breads, look for 100 percent whole wheat bread, pitas, and tortillas.

—Avoid sweetened beverages. It's not just about what you eat — drinks count, too! Milk has been a favorite lunchtime drink for a long time. If your child doesn’t like milk, choose water. 100 percent real fruit juice is fine too -— just be sure there aren’t added sugars in the form of high fructose corn syrup or regular sugar. Skip sodas (regular and diet) and iced tea. Kids don’t need the extra sugar, calories or caffeine.

—Think lean protein. Lean sources of protein such as chicken, fish, lentils (chickpeas, beans), lean ham and turkey are important for building organs and other body tissues. They also keep your child from getting hungry immediately after lunch. Always include a source of lean protein with every lunch.

* Note: Check with your school administrator to make sure that nuts are allowed. Some districts have banned nuts as they can cause severe allergic reactions in some children.

Still stuck for a healthy lunch idea?
Try this for a perfect lunchbox!

—Fresh turkey (about 3 oz. — the size of a deck or cards) on whole wheat bread with lettuce, sliced tomato, and 1 tbsp. reduced fat mayonnaise.
—Yogurt smoothie (made with 3/4 cup low fat vanilla yogurt and 1 cup frozen or fresh strawberries)
—1 cup fresh baby carrots, sliced red and green peppers with 2 tablespoons hummus (for dip)
—1 apple
—8 oz. low-fat milk

KATHERINE BROOKING is a Registered Dietician in private practice in Manhattan. She is also the nutrition consultant to the Student Health Service at Columbia Medical School. She works with children, teens and adults on a variety of nutritional issues including weight management, eating disorders, food allergies, heart-healthy eating and pre/post natal nutrition. She can be reached at (917) 620-5244 or at