When you stare at those empty compartments in your child’s lunch box, do you sometimes feel like they’re taunting you, “So what are you going to put in me today?”
Challenge accepted. Let’s start with the basics:
Food types: “For lunch, I encourage parents to follow Choose My Plate (www.choosemyplate.gov) and include a protein source (which doesn’t have to be meat), a carbohydrate of some sort, fruit and at least one non-starchy vegetable,” said Sarah Tankersley Coleman, a pediatric dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia. “By non-starchy, I mean any vegetable that when you squish it, only water comes out.”
Proteins could include meat, beans or hard-boiled eggs; carbs could be brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-grain crackers or bread; fruits should be whole or unsweetened; and vegetables could include carrots, green beans, broccoli or cauliflower. You can also replace the fruit with a starchy vegetable, such as corn, peas or butterbeans.
It is a good idea to ensure that lunch is familiar food too, to ensure your child will eat it. “School lunch isn’t the time to try to introduce new foods to your child,” said Coleman. “Save that for when you’re eating together as a family.”
Cool packs: To keep cooked food cool and safe, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends using two frozen gel packs no smaller than 5×3 inches or one gel pack with a frozen water bottle. Foods that don’t need to be kept cool include whole fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter and jelly, mustard and pickles.
Insulated container: To keep foods like noodles in sauce, soup or chili warm, fill an insulated container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, then put in piping-hot food. Just remember that anything you pack in an insulated container must have some liquid in it. Dry foods (say for example fried rice) won’t stay warm and could grow some nasty bacteria by lunchtime.
Water: “It’s perfectly OK to send water, preferably in a reusable bottle,” said Coleman. Water is actually a much healthier option than juice or Gatorade/Powerade. If kids want more flavor, you can infuse water with fruit overnight, or add a little Crystal Light.
Treats: Your child doesn’t need dessert every day, and fruits can help fill in the blank if your child wants something sweet. “But a special treat is fine a couple times a week,” said Coleman.
It’s also helpful for parents to ask schools when lunch or snack times are, especially if kids are in afterschool care. Lunch might not be at noon like you expect, and knowing that time can help you plan what to pack and how to pack it so it stays food-safe. “Some schools serve lunch as early as 10:30,” said Coleman, “and others serve it much later.”
Lunch, Five Days a Week
A week’s worth of lunch ideas could look like this:
- Monday: Peanut butter and jelly tortilla roll-up, unsweetened applesauce, and hummus with bell peppers. Insider tip: Switch it up by replacing the jelly with bananas; the bell peppers with baby carrots or broccoli; or the hummus with ranch dressing.
- Tuesday: Slice of quiche with veggies baked in, cherries and yogurt. Insider tip: Look for veggie and egg “muffin” recipes online; these little muffins are just the right portions and can usually be frozen and reheated.
- Wednesday: Chicken salad with whole-grain bread or pretzels, cucumber slices and blueberries. Insider tip: That chicken salad is a great way to include other fruits, like grapes, apple or pineapple. Just mix it right in.
- Thursday: Turkey and cheese pita sandwich, vegetable soup and grapes. Insider tip: Think about other ways you could combine protein and bread, such as cheese and meat pizza, or whole-wheat bagels with peanut butter or cream cheese.
- Friday: Salad with shredded rotisserie chicken and raspberry vinaigrette, whole-wheat crackers and raspberries. Insider tip: Deconstruct the salad, putting chicken, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers in separate compartments, with the dressing on the side for dipping.
Your child’s eating schedule should go something like this: Breakfast soon after waking up; a snack two to three hours later; lunch two to three hours later; another snack two to three hours later; and dinner two to three hours later. “Most young kids go to bed an hour or so after dinner,” said Coleman. “But older kids and teens who stay up later might also want a bedtime snack.”
A good snack combines a carbohydrate with protein and healthy fat. “You want to combine something with that carb to slow down digestion and keep kids full longer, using good healthy sources that are nutrient dense,” she said.
Some good (and easy!) choices include:
• Grapes and mozzarella cheese stick
• Pretzels and Laughing Cow cheese
• Apple slices and peanut butter
• Tortilla chips and guacamole
• Homemade trail mix with a nuts and seeds, dried cherries, and dark chocolate chips
• Yogurt with granola
• Peanut butter and whole-wheat crackers
While parents might stress out about the fact that their child ate a sandwich or Spaghetti-Os pretty much every day last week, Coleman says not to worry. “A sandwich is a good option, and chips are fine,”—especially if you make sure to choose whole-grain bread, meats, cheeses, veggies and low-sodium or even veggie chips.
“If you have older children, you don’t have to be fancy. If that’s what they like, let them have it,” she added. “You can spice it up by doing some wraps or even deconstructed sandwiches. But don’t feel like you have to do a lot more, otherwise, it just becomes a very crazy morning.”