Back to school means back to packing lunch for most families, but a few tips and tricks can make the chore easier and healthier this fall.
Parents who want to strive for a healthier lunch should aim for a mix of vegetables, protein, and fruit, and make it at home from real -- not processed -- food, says Sally Sampson, president and founder of ChopChop Kids, the Belmont-based nonprofit that publishes ChopChop, The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families.
While lunch-making time can be in short supply for many, Sampson believes planning, preparing, and packing a healthy lunch can be made easier with just a few tricks. She recommends setting aside time on the weekend to pre-pack snacks for the week, and purchasing ingredients, such as vegetables and legumes, which can be used in mix-and-match recipes to create salads, sandwiches, and grain bowls (a whatever-you-enjoy mix of grains, protein, and vegetables in one container).
ChopChop features a variety of recipes for nutritious and delicious meals designed to appeal to families. Roasted chickpeas, homemade energy bars, deviled eggs, and Greek salad kebabs are just a few of the many healthy recipes on its website. Sampson suggests the Rainbow Sandwich, Corn and Basil Frittata, and Fattoush (all pictured above and right) as tasty recipes that can pack well (recipes can be found via a quick search at chopchopmag.org).
More inspiration can be found at holleygranger.com, where nationally recognized nutritionist and health expert Holley Granger provides photos and descriptions for 125+ healthy lunches for kids. The colorful collections of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy grains are wonderful for a parent's lunchbox, too.
Worried your kids won't like a healthier lunch? Tufts University program ChildObesity180, designed to reverse the youth health epidemic, conducted a study asking kids if they would accept fruit and veggies instead of fries. The majority said "Yes."
Its website, YoureTheMom.org, offers tips for simple changes that can help children eat healthier, such as the Kids Reward Program. The program features a free, downloadable, printable PDF of tokens (fresh fruits, vegetables, water, and milk) children earn with each healthy food choice. Parents can establish fun rewards a child can earn after receiving five tokens.
Put the kids to work
One way to ensure a child looks forward to a healthy lunch is to get them involved in packing it. Sampson believes kids should help pack their own lunch, and the way they get involved can change as they grow.
"To get started, they can help measure ingredients, spread dips and dressings on sandwiches, add ingredients to lunch recipes, or peel fruits and vegetables," she said. "Older kids can cut up ingredients, like fresh vegetables and fruits."
Sampson also recommends bringing kids to the grocery store and encouraging them to select items from the produce section. This provides opportunities to learn responsibility, prompts them to try new foods, and helps them take ownership of their lunch.
An upgrade from a plain old paper bag, via a quality food storage solution, can also make lunchtime more fun and ensure hot foods stay hot and cold foods stay cold. For the latter, one option is the PackIt lunch bag, which folds flat and is kept in the freezer. PackIts can be found at many big box stores and online.
Vacuum thermos bottles and bowls can be used for for soups, pasta, and other warm foods. Read the manufacturer's instructions and be sure to follow any recommendations for pre-warming or pre-chilling the container.
The Rubbermaid LunchBlox Kit is available at major retail and grocery stores and includes several containers with lids that stack together with a freezable ice pack.
Fit&Fresh offers a variety of lunch containers with slim freezable ice packs that insert into the leak-proof lids. Schools and organizations can also fundraise for their programs and raise awareness about healthy eating with the Fit-Fresh Fundraising program.
Several small containers packed into a lunch bag can be cumbersome at mealtime, especially for younger children. A Bento box features containers divided into sections so a variety of foods can be packed neatly into one larger container. Bentology lunch box sets are designed with an outer case that holds the smaller containers. Some of the containers have lids so they can be filled with different foods without leaking or spilling.
The OmieBox is an all-in-one lunch kit to pack hot and cold foods in the same box. The vacuum-insulated bowl keeps foods hot, while insulated side compartments keep fruits, vegetables, cheese, hard boiled eggs, and other cold foods cool.
Another option is DIY -- creating your own divided containers using silicone muffin cup liners. Pack foods tightly into a larger container and be sure to consider if the lunch bag or lunchbox being tipped or shaken will cause the contents to spill from the divided cups.
Purchasing or making a collection of cloth napkins to be used with packed lunches can be a colorful, environmentally friendly addition. Metal utensils and reusable drink containers will also create less waste.
Finally, establish a daily routine of emptying lunch boxes after school and work so containers are cleaned and foods are not allowed to spoil in packed bags.