Does the beginning of a new school year bring a flood of anxiety and dread when it comes to your kids’ school lunches? Do you stress every night or every morning over what to pack for your child(ren) that would be nutritious, fun, and waste-free?
Over the years of volunteering at my kids’ schools, I’ve seen so many un-balanced lunches. The candy, processed foods, and snacks still end up in the trash because the kids just want to have a quick bite and head out to recess with their friends. With an average of 160 days in a typical school year that equals 160 lunches to make for your kids. That’s 160 opportunities to give kids food that not only sustains them through the school day but also sets them up to make healthy choices about their diet as they grow up. In this post, I will share some of the best tips I’ve learned about packing lunches for my kids. Take it from a mom and a chef who is always on the lookout to be adventurous, healthy and efficient.
1.Find out what foods your kids like and stick with it.
That might not seem very adventurous, but it works and its a good starting ground. Samuel loves crunchy veggies like carrots, celery, and cucumbers. Caleb prefers just cucumbers so we stick with what he already likes and will readily eat.
2.Introduce them to new foods based on what they already like.
Samuel loves crunchy texture in foods so I introduced him to celery, radishes, and sugar snap peas. Fruits like firm nectarines, kiwis and pears, quickly became a favorite. The key was picking crunchy and firm fruits and veggies for him. Caleb is more open to what a food tastes like rather than the texture. For him, it’s a matter of tasting it and “selling” it to him with the added bonus of getting certain vitamins in his body.
3.Less is more.
Worried about your child having enough food and not starving throughout the day? Let me assure you that packing more foods in their lunch is not the solution. I found that I would much rather they come home hungry and have a healthy snack before an early dinner than overpack their lunch and have it end up in the trash or spoil in their lunch boxes.
4.Quality over quantity.
Focus on packing good quality food that will feed their brain, fuel their energy, and sustain them. Avoid processed foods, integrate whole grains, and chop and prep fresh fruits and veggies the night before. Avoid artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners as they are pure junk for your child’s brain. Whenever possible include foods that are rich in Omegas, which are good brain food.
5.Teach them the importance of a balanced meal and which foods provide needed vitamins and minerals.
When my son watched a cartoon where it explained that avocados are a good food to feed your brain, he was instantly converted and encouraged his brother to do the same. My boys are constantly asking me, which vitamins does this food have and how is it good for me? As they learn that veggies are super important, packed with loads of vitamins, fruits are a great source of energy and satisfy the craving for something sweet and wholesome sources of protein and calcium are great for their growing bones and strength, they will begin to make better food choices.
Carbs are great before a sports activity or a hike but learning to make a healthy choice as to what kind and how many is an ongoing process for kids. A lesson on the structure of grains and which part is beneficial and what is actually used in the bread, tortillas, and crackers that we eat is a good place to start.
6.Guide them on what to start eating first.
At the dinner table, dessert is always last. During lunchtime, many kids start with “dessert” or candy and then feel too full for the rest of their actual meal. Once they learn what each food provides for their body, guide them to start with their main food first, then move on to veggies, then fruits and finally something sweet. Eating lunch in this order is also a great discipline to prevent food waste because their main food will probably be one of the first things to spoil or be unsafe to eat. It’s not an easily learned habit though, so keep them accountable when they come home by asking, what did you eat first, and what is left in your lunchbox?
7.Let them help.
Don’t deprive your kids of a life lesson by packing their lunch for them. (I’ve been guilty of that myself…) When kids help out, they begin to own what they do and that will teach them responsibility, accountability, and stewardship. Do they want half of an apple or a whole, sliced or quartered? These are some of the questions to ask your kids, and decisions they can make on their own. Kids can also learn the basics of chopping and prepping by being involved in preparing their lunches.
8.To toss or save for later?
If your child finishes half of their lunch, should they toss the rest or bring it home? Whenever you’re packing lunch together, teach them what is better to save and what is not. Early on I figured it was not a good idea for my son to save his unfinished applesauce cup because of the mess it made all over his backpack. Berries are best not to save because they tend to get mushy very quickly. Anything in cups like applesauce or yogurt should not be saved, it’s just not worth the clean-up.
Most firm fruits and veggies should be ok to save for later as long as they’ve been in a lunchbox with an icepack. Same goes for canned meats and cheeses. It’s important to teach kids to eat their main food and especially lunches that have deli meats and sausages first because after lunchtime it won’t be safe to consume. Anything dry like chips, nuts, crackers can be saved for later as long as they are able to pack them in a way that won’t get crumbs all over their backpack.
If my kids consistently bring home a certain food from their lunch, then we talk about whether or not we should pack it again and readjust their lunch options. In our culture, we waste massive amounts of foods by easily tossing leftovers in the trash. It’s important to teach kids about not wasting their food and what is the safe way of storing it in their lunch boxes.
9.Best lunch boxes and packing tips.
planetbox.com has the very best bento-style stainless steel lunch boxes. I love the idea of one box with compartments that we get to fill up with my kids. The separate compartments teach them about a balanced meal and one box means less chance of losing a container or lid. The stainless steel structure is sturdy, dishwasher safe and will not fade, warp or peel as plastics do. They are an investment but I’d say its worth it. My son has had his for almost 3 years and it’s in great shape! If it just isn’t an option to get a planetbox, go for a sturdy, leak-proof plastic bento-style container. Don’t forget to pack your kids’ lunchboxes in insulated lunch bags with cold packs.
A great idea for packing mushier fruits or veggies is to pack them in a small container that will fit inside the bento-box. That keeps it contained and from getting all over the lunchbox or spilling into other compartments. Small containers that fit into the bento-box are also great for sauces for the “saucy” kid. I love to use silicone muffin cups to divide up foods like crackers and cheese. This helps everything stay in place and makes for a mess-free lunch box.
Save your kids the embarrassment of a smelly lunch by leaving the tuna sandwich and hard-boiled egg meals for home. Eggs and tuna are a healthy food option but when it’s sitting in an enclosed lunchbox for 3-4 hours, your kids may not have a buddy who would want to sit next to them because of the strong smell.
10.Remember, for most kids, lunch is #2 and recess is #1, so make the most of it.
If normally at home your child eats a full sandwich, most likely they won’t at school because they want to get outside and play. So, pack half a sandwich and the other half is ready to go for the next day. It’s ok to pack half an apple, half a cucumber and leave the other half at home.
I found that a homemade treat like a cookie, muffin or bar was one of the first things my kids would eat from their lunch so I made sure that it was nutritious and fun. I don’t pack it every day but its a nice touch as much as a fun little note can be that’s tucked away into your child’s lunchbox. This is the stuff that feeds their emotions along with their body.