Articles and Topics
Picking – and Packing – the Perfect Lunch
More than any other time of the year, the back to school months of August and September are a time of fresh starts for kids, complete with new clothes, school supplies and the treasured “gotta have” lunchbox. But what’s more important than the decal on the box is what you put inside to carry your child through the day.

Lunchtime in almost every school is more than just for eating. It’s also a combination of socializing, observation and finding your place in the order of things. What a child carries in his bag can impact where he fits in this order.

Parents of older children are well aware of the pressures awaiting their kids in the school cafeteria, but we don’t have to bow to poor eating choices to help our child fit in. It is the observant yet creative parent who wins the prize as coolest mom or dad in the end. So what’s a parent to do?

Let’s begin with the understanding that many school lunch programs are under scrutiny these days as we look at trends in childhood obesity. This isn’t to say that the food alone is the culprit but rather a combination of factors such as shortened lunch periods, decreased physical activity and a tendency to rely on high-fat, high-calorie convenience foods. In our overworked society, it becomes easier to budget for purchased school lunches than come up with a variety of lunchbox meals that our kids will actually eat. Additionally, many schools contract with outside companies that make non-nutritious snack foods and soft drinks available to students, with a percentage of the profits being returned to the school. Fortunately, some schools now restrict these purchases during the school day, limiting the child’s ability to opt for chips over vegetables.

Shorter lunch periods and long lunch lines limit what your kids have time to eat, so they often go right for the starch-based “filler foods” and throw out the vegetables and fruit. These high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods make your child sleepy after lunch because the body uses energy for digestion, rapidly raising blood glucose levels and then allowing these levels to drop quickly, leaving kids unable to concentrate during afternoon classes.

Keep all this in mind when you’re planning your child’s lunch. Set limits but allow for flexibility. It’s OK to allow the occasional purchased school lunch, so when you receive the school menu let your child pick a favorite meal to buy once or twice a month.

Remember, it’s a good idea to involve your child in the school lunch process. Start by asking what she would like to eat for lunch. At the same time, understand that peer pressure can change those preferences in an instant, so don’t purchase large quantities of anything until a routine has been established. Your son or daughter may love egg salad sandwiches, but if the child across the table says they smell funny, you may never get a request for them again.

Just as you’ll want to learn about your child’s classes, make it a point to find out important details about the cafeteria routine, including the time he’ll eat. Some schools start serving as early as 10:30 a.m. in order to accommodate large student bodies or small cafeterias. If school starts at 9, Bobby may not be hungry for lunch at 11. If the scheduled lunch is very early or late, ask your child’s teacher if a healthy snack might be allowed during long stretches of the day.

When packing lunches, let your imagination soar. There are so many products available that are lunchbox-friendly yet still healthy, such as tuna in single serving packets, low-fat puddings that don’t require refrigeration and juice boxes without added sugar. Try real cheese slices with whole wheat crackers, baby carrots with a fat-free dip, cut-up raw veggies, frozen grapes that will thaw by lunchtime, and trail mix made from cereal, dried fruits and a teaspoon of chocolate candies. Some children love cereal, so a packaged individual serving with a carton of milk and a banana might be perfect. Consider wraps and pockets as an alternative to sandwich bread.

Ask your child to help put his lunch together. You can make sure the meal is balanced, but he can choose the foods, since children are more inclined to eat meals they have prepared themselves. If time is a problem in the morning, make a regular weekend project of setting up five labeled food bags (for Monday through Friday) that can be filled with non-perishable foods in advance. Attach a sticky note to the outside with a list of last-minute additions, and you’re set to go. The food can be put into the lunchbox and the bags recycled next week. If lunch is being purchased on one of the days, add the lunch money to the appropriate bag. (And when packing lunch, make sure to first check with your school regarding peanut butter or nuts. Because of students with nut allergies, they’re not permitted at some schools.)

As your determine your lunch plan, consider the size of your child. A full sandwich might be too large for a 6-year-old, so consider half of one. Don’t rule out flavored milk—many children who refuse white milk will drink chocolate or vanilla milks. Save cut-up fruit, which may discolor by the time lunch starts, for an after-school snack.

Finally, don’t forget to include the occasional lunchtime surprise in your child’s bag: a chocolate kiss, a favorite cookie wrapped in waxed paper and tied with a ribbon, a little note of encouragement. Slip them into lunch once a week—rotating the days so the surprise doesn’t turn into a routine —and get ready for an after-school hug. Keeping treats small and simple allows your child to enjoy an occasional sweet without feeling deprived.

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant