With back-to-school season arriving, a familiar foe for many parents is also returning from summer break: school lunches.
Most parents would love to send their children off to school every day with a healthy and nutritious lunch. But many are stumped about what to pack to ensure kids get the nutrients they need and that the carefully-prepared meal doesn’t get tossed for cookies and chips.
Fear not. What follow are the building blocks of a healthy school lunch that, combined, will offer flavor, color, nutrition, and fun for children of all ages; some tips that will make packing school lunches less tedious for parents; and a recipe that kids will surely love.
Start with a Plan
A little planning can go a long way when it comes to packing school lunches. Sidestep the daily drudgery of figuring out what to pack by creating a weekly meal plan. To maximize time, consider cooking in bulk and setting aside one day specifically for meal preparation. Resources such as My Plate can assist with making smart food choices and preparing balanced meals.
To keep the contents of your child’s lunchbox from being tossed, these basic rules apply:
- Provide different food choices every day to avoid taste fatigue.
- Keep food stored at the correct temperature utilizing ice packs or insulated lunch boxes or bags.
- Serve hot foods only if there is a microwave available at school to reheat the meal to a safe temperature.
What to pack
- A vegetable. Start with the vegetable. Salads incorporating sturdy greens like kale will remain crisp and tasty (even after being dressed) and are always a good choice.
- A fruit. Next, you’ll want to include a fruit – fresh, frozen, or canned (in light syrup only). Cutting fruit in a variety of sizes and shapes will bring pizazz to the lunchbox and add an element of surprise and fun to the unpacking process.
- A whole grain. Always select a whole grain: wheat couscous, pasta, a wheat tortilla, brown rice, or whole wheat bread are all good choices.
- A protein. The best bets for protein are items like beans, lentils, tuna, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, sunflower seed butter, and low-sodium luncheon meats.
- A dairy. Finally, finish the meal with a low-fat serving of dairy, like light yogurt, cheese, or cottage cheese.
A recipe: Kale, Broccoli, and Chicken Salad
Wait. What? Kale, broccoli and chicken salad for my kids' school lunches? Yes! You’ll be surprised how many children love this combo.
Delicious and simple, this recipe provides enough versatility to last throughout the school year and is easy to make! Here's how to make it:
- Toss together cooked chicken, cut into small pieces, with one or more vegetable (e.g., kale, broccoli florets, broccoli slaw, sliced Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, etc.).
- If desired, add shredded low-fat cheese, red onion, dried fruit and seed mix (cranberries and pumpkin seeds), chopped apple, or lemon juice.
- Drizzle balsamic vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste and voila! You have the basis for a perfect lunch that even picky eaters will love!
Sarah Kavlich, RD, CLEC, is a clinical dietitian at the Children's Hospital of Orange County.