School’s back in session, so you know where your kids are. But do you know what they’re eating for lunch? Packing a healthy lunchbox is a great way to sneak in some good nutrition. But if you don’t take the time to do it right, that lunch will get tossed and traded and become “nutrition-less,” says Cedars Sinai dietitian Netty Levine, M.S., R.D.
Levine has some experience in this area. She’s a mom and grandmother of eight, and cites leaving kids out of the planning and poor presentation as among parents’ biggest lunch-packing blunders. “Lunch needs to be attractive,” Levine explains. “For the older children, they don’t want to be embarrassed by what is in the lunch that others see. There is a psychological aspect to lunch-making.”
On the nutritional side, avoid packing drinks high in sugar. Send a water bottle in a size appropriate for your child (smaller child, smaller bottle) or a shelf-stable milk or soy milk box. “Try freezing these to keep the lunch cool,” Levine suggests. “The older kids may like the slushy texture as these defrost.”
Those cleverly packaged “lunch” foods can mean nutritional nightmares for parents who want to avoid them. “If other kids bring them, then the parents are in trouble. Lunch envy!” says Levine, who suggest creating “look-alike meals” from healthier ingredients instead. Make it a game to go to the store, check out what is in these packages, and see if you can create the same thing for less money.
And always package carefully. “Some kids dislike soggy sandwiches,” Levine says. “Bread or crackers and meat and/or cheese may need to be packed separately.” If you do opt for the occasional packaged goodie, read labels (let the kids help!) and avoid nitrates and too much sodium (salt).
Too busy to pack lunch? Plan and stage over the weekend, and get the kids into the act. “Have the children pre-portion the little carrots in baggies for two days at a time,” says Levine. “Have them count the number they can put into each baggy. If you give them little animal crackers or animal graham crackers or little pretzels, let them bag those, too. A little math goes well together with a little nutrition. It’s like killing two birds with one stone.”
To get your family – and others at your child’s school – eating healthier, Levine suggests a school project: a classroom cookbook where each child brings in recipes for a healthy lunch and a healthy dinner. Create little books with photos of each child, and you’ve got a new batch of ideas to plan with.
You’ll know your hard work has paid off when it’s your child’s lunch that inspires “lunch envy.” And when that happens, you might need to send along a bit extra to share. “My youngest child begged for more tangerines to be included in his lunch when his friends were begging him for more sections,” says Levine. “This mom gladly sent many little tangerines.”