Get Packing! School Lunch Ideas and Tips

Here we are in the dregs of summer. The coffee grounds. The crumbs. No longer are the glorious sun-soaked days stretching before us. And how are we feeling? A bit (a lot) happy that school is starting, but also melancholy (a lot) that summer is ending. I’m ready for a little less kid-time, but I’m also filled to the brim with memories of squealing flips into the lake and sandy hands reaching up to hold mine. Still, we are all excited for school to begin, especially since my wee girl is starting kindergarten. Wasn’t it just yesterday … Of course, school brings with it a whole host of other routines, like waking up, doing homework and making school lunches.

I’m very fortunate that the school my children attend has a great lunch service, so if I don’t want to make it, they won’t eat glop with a side of canned cheese. Even so, I don’t want to pay for lunch everyday, and my kids like the comfort of homemade. A healthy packed lunch should ideally have whole grains, protein, fruits and veggies, and a good source of calcium. The problem is keeping it interesting and palatable for your little critics and the key is to be realistic about what and how much your child will eat. Some days it might only be cheese and crackers, but getting creative and including them in the process will increase your chance of success.

Here’s a list of lunch choices that might make the experience a little less monotonous, and also won’t require you to carve apples into frogs. (Unless that’s your thing, in which case, you better get started.)

Sandwiches, salads and hot food:
• We all know how eating food on a stick enhances the eating experience, so I love the idea of a sandwich on a stick. Layer squares of cheese with hunks of whole grain bread, chicken, tomatoes, cucumbers — whatever your child likes. Here’s a fruity variation. This meal is one that the kids can help you with. Alternately, you might be able to sneak on something new when they aren’t looking, so enthralled will they be by their lunch. I recommend using a Popsicle stick, to avoid eye skewering at the lunch table. As a time saving measure, bake off a pan of chicken breasts over the weekend and dice them up. That way you will have them for the skewers anytime you need them throughout the week or to throw on salads, or even just to pack up and send in a handy dandy reusable container.

• Peanut butter and jelly is a pretty tasty source of protein, but most schools are peanut free now. Good alternatives include soy butter or sunflower butter layered with sliced apples or whole fruit jam. Other options for a similarly simple sandwich are pumpkin butter whipped into cream cheese and spread on whole grain bread, or sliced fresh strawberries and cream cheese on a bagel.

• Wraps and the pitas are great for making lunches more visually appealing and a little less sandwich-y. My daughter’s favorite is bacon and cheddar cheese in a wrap. I reserve some of the Sunday brunch bacon to make this quick and easy to assemble. Adding fresh spinach or romaine and tomatoes, makes it healthy and hearty. Wraps are also good vessels for cold cuts — just stick with a healthier brand that is nitrate free.  

• A hummus-and-sprout stuffed pita is a nutritious option, and lends itself to quillions of variations, including shredded carrots, cabbage, roasted eggplant and on and on. If you are feeling very ambitious at 7 am, you can set up a sandwich bar and have the kids build their own.

• I send my kids to school with fruit salad quite often, and my youngest will eat a green salad if it’s loaded with cherry tomatoes and olives. Tuna salad can be mixed with everything from apples to celery, although it’s not recommended that children eat tuna more than once a week. Whole wheat pasta in fun shapes, mixed with chunks of mozzarella or feta, tomatoes, grapes, cucs, and that previously cut up chicken will be a new addition to our lunches this year, with extra made for the chef.

• Soups, like this crock pot chicken noodle, pasta with marinara (sneak in those carrots and spinach), the occasional leftover, and if I’m feeling very nice, mac and cheese, make easy Thermos lunches. I don’t think anything stays that hot, but the kids don’t mind and some schools will warm the food.


Snacks:
• I stick to a something crunchy, something healthy, something sweet approach when packing lunches. They always get a veggie and a fruit. If your child, ahem, my child, complains that their fruit is getting mushy, there are clever containers like these to keep everything a little fresher. In the cracker/chip department, I try and send whole grain crackers, pretzels, pita chips or Goldfish. They don’t need the fat and sodium from potato chips. Sunflower seeds mixed with raisins or currants is popular, or you can make your own GORP or granola. Have the kids help you decide what to throw in and they’ll be more likely to eat it. I recommend making a nutty batch and a nut-free batch. The nutty one is perfect brain food for homework time. Frozen yogurt sticks or yogurt parfaits, make for a nice calcium source and sweet kick. Other choices are hard boiled eggs, sunflower butter on celery sticks, chips and salsa, cheese and crackers and fruit kebabs.

When buying, try to stick with locally grown or Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM produce and try to convince your school to do the same. Please also use reusable lunch containers or bags like these, and reusable water bottles. If you can, encourage your school to start a garden and compost bin. There are so many opportunities to encourage healthy eating and reduce our footprint on the planet. Ok, public service message over.

Good luck, lunch packers and waker-uppers of willful children. It’s time to kick off another year of wonder.