Back to school: Packing a healthy lunch

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It’s officially that time of the year, back to school. Packing lunch for your kiddos every day can be quite the grueling task. Not only does it take time and planning, but there’s always the chance the meal you put all your love into comes home at the end of the day untouched.

Instead of sending them with the same lunch day in and day out, you may have to think outside the box. Use tips below on how to pack a nutritious lunch that your kids will want to eat and one that you will feel good about giving them.

Plan ahead. Don’t wait till the minute your kids are putting their shoes on to throw their lunch together. While the kitchen is still a mess from dinner, take the time to make lunch then. Keep a variety of individual snack packages (fruit pouches, pretzels, popcorn, etc.) in a designated container so you can just grab and go.

Get your kids involved. When kids play a role in the planning and preparing of meals, they are more likely to try new foods and have a better understanding of what nutritious foods look like. Rather than deciding for them that they will be getting a PB&J and an apple let them choose from a couple different items. For example, “Would you like a PB&J or ham sandwich?”, “Grapes or strawberries?”, “string cheese or greek yogurt?” This also allows them to make their own decisions about what they will eat that day.

Give them age-appropriate tasks to help prepare their foods. Older kids may be able to make most of their lunch themselves. Younger kids can with making the sandwich, cutting fruit and veggies into smaller pieces, and retrieving items from the pantry or fridge and then putting them away.

Include each food group. In order to get a variety of nutrients, it’s important to include all five food groups. Each food group helps to supply protein, fat, and carbohydrates that give your child energy to keep up throughout the rest of the day and during their after-school activities.

Fruit: banana, grapes, fruit cup, raisins

Veggies: bell pepper strips, carrots, cherry tomatoes, snow peas,

Dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese

Grains: whole wheat bread, English muffin, crackers, tortilla wrap, pita, pasta

Protein: baked chicken, deli meat, hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, beans, nut butter (just be aware of food allergies in the school)

Have fun. Get creative by using cookie cutters to make different shapes out of bread, deli meat, or cheese. Slice up fruits or use a melon-baller. Use kid-friendly skewers to make kabobs lined with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese cubes, and turkey. Make your child feel extra special by putting a sticky note in their lunch with words of encouragement.

Invest in a fun lunch box. Compartment lunch boxes help cut back on the amount of plastic bags you use, they separate foods so nothing gets soggy, and they help ensure portion sizes are just right. Always include an ice pack to keep foods cold and fresh. Keep a thermos on hand to send warm foods for lunch such as soups and leftovers.

Don’t forget to hydrate. Send their favorite water bottle to school and encourage them to drink the entire thing at least twice throughout the day. This is especially important this time of year when it’s still warm outside! Have a child that doesn't like water? Try flavored water or try adding fruit to it for a natural flavor.

Now, take these tips and hit the ground running. Good luck!

Jordan Luxa is a Food, Nutrition and Health educator for Nebraska Extension in Washington County. She can be contacted at 402-426-9455, jordan.luxa@unl.edu, or visit the Washington County Extension website at www.washington.unl.edu.

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