by Carol Muse Evans
With the return to school comes the return of the dreaded “school lunch” dilemma. What can I put in my child’s lunch box that will be both something nutritious, and my child will actually EAT?
Experts say with a little creativity and you child’s input, you can make lunch time and the lunch box an enjoyable adventure and eliminate the trading and throwing away of food sent to school.
Make Sandwiches and “Finger Foods” Easy to Handle
“Children and adults alike love to eat with their hands,” says Janet Little, nutritionist for Sprouts Farmers Markets. “Think of finger food, and think small….smaller sandwiches on whole wheat bread with lean chicken or turkey slices, small bean and cheese burritos.”
Rainie Carter, registered dietician, Children’s of Alabama, suggests using sandwich or cookie cutters to make those little sandwiches both easy to handle and appealing to eat. “Also, prepackaged lunches/lunch meats tend to have extra fat and sugar,” Carter points out. Try to go with low-fat luncheon meat for better nutrition.
And don’t feel limited to sandwiches. If a child doesn’t like a sandwich, pieces of string cheese, low-fat meat, fruits and vegetables along with crackers or whole wheat bread make an excellent lunch. There is nothing “magical” about a sandwich. “Hummus, tortillas, and wraps can be other great ways to present lunch,” Carter adds.
Beautiful fruits and veggies in many colors can be both nutritious and offer a lot of variety. Blueberries, grapes, tomatoes, little peppers – all these can be beautiful to look at and fun to eat.
“Kids love things on a stick,” Carter says. Consider making a kabob of fruits, vegetables or even cheese cubes, etc.
“Kids like to scoop, too,” Little adds. “Small peppers, baby carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, snap peas and edamame all make wonderful foods that can be dipped in hummus, and most kids love hummus.”
Little reminds moms and dads that if fruit is sent to school but not cut up, many children will not eat it and it may end up in the garbage. “Cut up fruit in bite-sized pieces, or buy pre-cut fruit to ensure your child will actually eat what you send with them,” Little says. A little lemon juice will keep fruit from turning brown.
Pack Snacks that Pack a Punch
While many of the items mentioned here would also make great snacks for snack time and even after school, other items that are great for both the lunch box and snack time are dried fruits, such as raisins, cranberries, dried mangoes, dates and other interested foods, Little points out.
Sprouts and other stores offer the bulk items in large bins. Little says this can be a great place to buy these snacks and try small amounts of new items, too. “Trail mixes, peanut butter, almond butter (but be sure of your school’s policy on nuts), granola bars, yogurt, whole grains – all of these are great snacks,” Carter says.
Keep Drinks Healthy
Nothing is healthier than water, says Carter. Sending water to drink is both healthy and easy to keep safe. “Some parents are trying to get their children’s vitamins through juice, but it is better to actually eat the fruit rather than drinking because it has less sugar, and more fiber that will keep them full,” Carter says.
A great way to make water more appealing is by freezing berries and putting them into the water,” says Amanda Keefer, director of marketing communications for Produce for Kids, an in-store campaign by Publix supermarkets. It gives the water color, flavor and keeps the water cool.
“When sending juice, be sure to choose 100 percent juice,” Little says. “With milk, go with fat free or 1 percent milk. Don’t send sodas.”
How to Pack It
Food safety is very important. Neglected it can mean illness for your child. Both Carter and Little suggest using an insulated lunch box and a freezable ice pack throughout the year, along with maybe a small thermos for soups in the winter.
“A great way to pack a lunch is with the bento-style lunch containers,” says Keefer. “These containers have compartments so you don’t have to deal with a lot of baggies.”
Another safe way to go with sandwiches, Little adds, is by not using mayonnaise. “Consider a spread for a sandwich such as avocado or hummus, “she says. “Your child may like the taste better; it will offer more nutrition and be safer.”
Freeze a water bottle or even yogurt as an “ice pack,” Carter adds. “This adds a cold drink to the lunch and makes the yogurt almost like a dessert – but much more nutritious.”
Make It a Family Affair
Getting your child involved in choosing lunch items means a better chance of them not only eating their lunch, but maybe even trying some new things.
“Take your child shopping with you when you can,” Little says. “Let them make some of the selections for their lunch box.”
“I know taking your child to the grocery store may not be the greatest idea,” Keefer adds, “but consider a trip just to purchase lunches…when kids have helped build something, they are more likely to be proud of it and eat it.”
“Give your child options,” Carter adds. “Dessert doesn’t have to be every day and you don’t have to send it daily in a lunchbox. You can give them choices, but maybe offer two options of fruit from which to choose, etc.”
If you child is a fan of prepackaged “lunches” with ham and cheese, for example, you can even create and build your own, Keefer adds, giving them more nutritious ingredients, and those that they like.
Carol Muse Evans is publisher/editor of Birmingham Parent.