As a mother of two young boys I am sympathetic to the challenge of how to pack an interesting, well-balanced lunch that the kids will eat, and how to do this DAY AFTER DAY.In organizing my thoughts on school lunch, I used a new recommendation by the USDA to guide me. Did you know the old “Food Pyramid”, used in health classes for years to teach us how to portion our food, is now extinct? In June, the USDA released a new, simplified icon called “Choose My Plate”. This graphic shows a plate with four roughly equal sections labeled Fruit, Vegetables, Grains, and Protein . If these four groups are used to plan lunch, packing school lunch can be a breeze (see table below).
Here are TEN tips for packing a great school lunch!
- Have a great lunch box that both you and your child likes. The one we chose is from EasyLunchboxes.com. It’s an affordable bento box-style system that is easy to clean (one box and lid instead of three) and helps me organize my different food groups easily. There is plenty of room for a snacks, drinks and icepacks. Also have a small thermos which you can use for occasional hot items like soups and stews.
- Keep things exciting and appealing by using many colors. Lunch will look interesting and have many different types of nutrients. Try different dips like hummus and yogurt dressing for veggies. Occasionally pack a homemade sweet treat that is packed with nutrition.
- Leftovers from the day before can be enjoyed for lunch the next day. Make life easy and let one meal do double duty. My kids love stew especially in the winter. If I do not have enough leftovers for dinner the next day, I’ll pack them in a thermos for lunch. Make Sunday’s leftover pancakes into a pancake sandwich on Monday!
- Have plenty of options stocked in your pantry and freezer so you do not always have to rely on fresh foods. For example, dried fruits like raisins can substitute for fresh. Keeping a bag of frozen edamame means you always can pack something green. Keep canned tuna in case you run out of lunch meat. Have options so you can always pack a great lunch in a pinch.
- Don’t be afraid to pack something new. Exposure to a variety of different foods is what grows an adventurous eater. When packing something new for kids, make sure your other lunch box compartments are filled with things they like. That way they will not feel too hungry if they don’t like a new food initially.
- If your child does not love something new that you have tried, don’t be afraid to pack it again. Research shows that it takes 6-10 exposures to a new food before a child may accept it (some researches say as many as 15 exposures) . A recent study showed that 94% of parents give up on a food before they reach five tries! Kids are less likely to be adventurous, healthy eaters if parents do not persist in exposing them to good nutrition.
- Try keeping your packed lunch as “waste free” as possible. If you find a great lunch box, you will not need throw-aways like sandwich bags. Find cloth napkins in fun patterns. The kids will love them and you will be showing them how to take care of the planet!
- Try packing seasonal items. Seasonal local foods are fresher and taste better. Packing more seasonally means that kids get to try different foods each month.
- Don’t forget calcium! Kids have growing bones and need plenty of calcium. If your child does not consume dairy products, have options on hand that are calcium-fortified like fortified juices and cereals.
- Keep kids engaged and interested in their lunches. Ask them to help with choosing, preparing, and packing lunch items. They are more likely to enjoy food when they are involved.