Back-to-school lunch tips


Jan Swoope



That ringing we hear is the sound of school bells. We knew it was coming, foretold by streams of anxious parents in store aisles, numbly checking and re-checking school supply lists.


In households where children take their own lunch to school, a certain level of fretting may have found a foothold. Nutrition is fuel for learning, and parents eager to give kids the best edge possible are always looking for ways to vary the fuel while keeping it as healthy and as tempting as possible.


There are multiple reasons for packing lunches -- food allergies or picky eaters, to name a couple. But the goal is to keep lunches balanced: carbohydrates like grains or starches to give kids slow-release energy and brain food; proteins including fish, beans, chicken, legumes, red meat or yogurt for muscle development; fruits and veggies for minerals and vitamins; dairy products for calcium and protein; and fats essential for healthy skin, hair and nails.



Good balance helps children feel energized and less likely to feel deprived, which can lead to disordered eating, according to registered dietitian Lindsey McKeon at


Involving kids in lunch planning or assembling usually makes them more likely to eat up. And putting lunch together the night before is less frazzling for everyone.



You might consider


A few of the specific food tips compiled at suggest:


  • Make a big batch of PB&J sandwiches in advance and freeze them. They'll keep for about four to six weeks. Take one out in the morning, pack it and it will be thawed by lunch time. Ham and cheese sandwiches freeze well, too. (A sandwich from the freezer will act as a ice pack in the lunch box, too.)


  • For sliced apples, place the pieces back together and put a rubber band around the apple to keep slices from browning before lunch.


  • Hard boil a supply of eggs at the beginning of the week. You'll have a source of protein at the ready. Add a small packet of salt and of pepper to the lunchbox.


  • Remember, tortillas can be used for anything from quesadilla pinwheels to mini pizzas.


  • Heat up soup or pasta in the morning; send it in a small thermos to stay warm.


  • Mix up a large bag or trail mix early in the week. Portion it out in smaller bags as desired.


  • Choosy kids? Make a "snack station" for them to choose from, larger plastic containers filled with an assortment of parent-approved eats. Kids like having options, and this helps solve the same-thing-every-day syndrome.



    Make it easier


    Tips from the Mississippi State University Extension Service ( can de-stress the daily task:


  • Stock a lunch prep area in the kitchen with all the supplies you'll need.


  • Use cookie cutters to make lunch meat and cheese more fun.


  • Provide a range of healthy options for kids to choose from and let them take part.


  • Don't forget to include a love note or word of encouragement.



    Keep it safe


    The Michigan State Extension Service ( recommends:


  • If lunch contains perishable food items (lunch meat, yogurt, cheese, eggs, mayo, etc.), pack it with at least two cold sources. Freezing a water bottle or juice box can act as a cold source. (As can one of those frozen PB&Js.) By the time lunch rolls around, they'll be thawed.


  • Thoroughly wash fresh fruits and vegetables with cool running water.


  • Clean and sanitize lunchboxes at least once a week. Leftover crumbs and other food debris can harbor dangerous bacteria that will grow and can make kids sick.


  • Sharing drinks is a prime way to spread foodborne illnesses. Let children know it's not OK. Personalizing water bottles or drink containers may help prevent accidental sharing.


    This school year is launching -- new beginnings, new teachers, new classmates, new excitement. Think of it as a renewal for nutrition goals, too, whether we pack lunches or just want to be more mindful of the food habits developing under our own roof. We can all benefit from better balance, no matter what "grade" we're in.



  • Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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