With the start of another school year looming on the horizon, many of us are preparing for the “busyness” that we’ll once again call life. If thinking about the daily chore of packing lunches has you stressing already, here are 5 tips for simplifying the task of healthy back-to-school lunches…

1. Think like a kid – As a mom and registered dietitian, I often say “it’s not nutrition unless they eat it.” The key is that we make food tasty and fun so they’ll want to eat what was packed. “Fun” does not have to mean a ton of time in the kitchen. It can be as simple as using cookie cutters to cut cheese, fruit or sandwiches into fun shapes, assembling kabobs (fruit, or meat, cheese and vegetables), serving roll-ups (lunchmeat and cheese or tortilla), or including dips (for vegetables, fruits, pita chips, etc.) – kids love to dip! Another fun option is packing a “make your own” lunch entrée. Try including the ingredients for making a mini pizza (1/2 of an English muffin, a little bit of tomato sauce, grated mozzarella cheese and a few pepperonis).

2. Keep MyPlate top of mind – If you think of the packed-lunch in terms of MyPlate, it simplifies packing. Make sure to include dairy foods, grains and meats, fruits and veggies. For example, an easy lunch is crackers (grain) and cheese (dairy), carrot sticks (veggies) and a yogurt-based dip (dairy), lunch meat roll-ups (meat) and some strawberry and grape kabobs (fruit). A great tool for packing lunches is the Bento box lunch boxes, which have separate compartments for various food components

3. Aim for milk with meals, water with snacks (and throughout the day) and 100% fruit juice in moderation. Water is calorie-free and great for hydration. Milks has key vitamins and minerals that children need for healthy bones and bodies – including calcium, vitamin D and potassium, 3 nutrients kids often fall short on. Milk can be packed from home, but can also be purchased at school. 100 percent fruit juice can be part of a healthy eating plan, but keep in mind that the recommended serving size is just 4 to 6 ounces daily.

4. Review the school lunch menus (and breakfast menus too, if your child’s school offers breakfast) – take time to go over the weekly (or monthly) menu with your child(ren), making note of the days they will purchase breakfast or lunch at school. Discuss the available options and help them build a healthy plate at every school meal – focusing on foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and low-fat dairy foods. Purchasing lunch at school can provide a nice break from packing lunches.

5. Lastly, pack lunches together – Encourage your kiddos to pack their own lunch with foods you approve of, and foods they like. Good news…kids tend to eat their lunch (and not trade items with a classmate or throw items away) if they have a say in the meal. Also, if they see you packing a nutritious lunch, they will be more likely to do the same, so make it an evening activity to pack lunches together.

Feeding your family right during the school year doesn’t have to be daunting. With these simple tips and a little preparation you can give your kiddos the nutrient-rich foods they need to fuel their learning throughout the school year.

-Jenna Allen, MS, RD

Categories: Nutrition Tips