The summer is winding down and, if your kids haven't already jumped onto the bus for the first time, you are probably deep in school-prep mode. While schools try their best to provide nutritious lunches, packing and sending a lunch with your kid is the best bet to ensure they're eating healthy foods. Unfortunately, packing a healthy school lunch (that your kids will eat!), day in and day out, can be a real challenge AND exhausting for most of us. The best way to start the year is to start with a good plan!
Top 10 lunch-packing tips:
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• Plan ahead. The best way to beat sandwich-boredom is to take notes from the school's hot lunch program. Take the time now to create a two-week or one-month menu cycle and post it on the fridge (skip ahead to No. 3 and No. 4 when creating this!). Make sure to include a day marked "leftovers" for whatever may be on the dinner menu that week.
•Pack ahead. If your kids are too young to pack their own lunch, streamline your process by creating an assembly line and packing all the lunches together. To make it even easier, pack this immediately after dinner when the kitchen is already dirty and you can save yourself some counter cleaning and time the next morning.
Another great idea came from a friend of mine … she makes an entire loaf of whole grain PB&J sandwiches at one time and then freezes them until ready to use. Think healthier homemade Smucker's Uncrustables.
• Involve the kids. If your kids are older, giving them the responsibility to pack their own lunch not only takes some of the stress off you but is also a great way to help teach good nutrition habits. You may be wondering how this can teach them healthy habits if they get to choose the food. It's "monitored" choices. Start by creating a weekly list that is split into the different food categories -- starches, proteins (or main entree), fruit/veg, drinks -- and list what food will be available that week. They can then choose one serving from each and every category putting the power (choice) slightly back in their hands. This helps teach portion control and balancing nutrients.
• Have a good supply of reusable containers. Whether you have BPA-free plastic containers or Pyrex-type containers, having a three- to four-day supply saves you the hassle of having to wash containers every day.
• Use leftovers. I've had many parents tell me how much time they take to plan healthy nutritious dinners and feel like they fall short at lunch time. Why not combine the two? You can make slightly larger dinner portions and then freeze lunch-size portions in muffin tins to help break up the sandwich monotony.
• Freeze puddings, smoothies and drinks the night before. Freezing liquids the night before is an easy way to ensure that the kids get something cold to drink at lunch. Most of the time, it will defrost by lunch and will have provided an extra "ice pack" in the lunchbox. Just leave yourself a sticky on the lunch box so you remember to grab it out of the freezer the next morning.
• Don't give too many choices. We tend to give our kids lots of choices in their lunchboxes to make sure that they find something, anything at lunch that they're willing to eat. This can backfire! Kids can quickly become overwhelmed with too many choices, only take one or two bites of everything, and then waste the rest. It's healthier (and more economical) to give them one starch choice, one protein choice, one fruit and/or vegetable choice and a beverage.
• Involve the kids some more! Bring the kids to the store or let them help you create the grocery shopping list. They may not always suggest what you would like, but kids like to have a voice and these are also great teaching opportunities. You can help guide them to a similar but healthier alternative. For example, they may envy their best friend's Fruit Roll-Up every day and ask for it. You can talk about why it's not the healthiest choice, guide them to a healthier homemade version, and have a fun cooking project to do together.
• Think smart and separate. Nothing is worse than pulling out your lunch only to have everything mushed together and soggy. Try investing in reusable containers with partitions. Reusable silicone muffin cups by Wilton or disposable soufflé cups are also a great investment -- you can use them for small servings of crackers, dressings, or thick dips like peanut butter (I've found them at Target, Michaels and Wal-Mart).
• LOVE NOTES! It puts a smile on anyone's face to have a little note tucked away in their lunch -- mix it up with what makes you proud of them/what you love about them and fun jokes. Even if they're older and tell you it's corny, they'll secretly love it!
Here's to a great start to the school year -- good luck! Stay tuned next month for a fresh array of lunch box creations.
Contact me: If you have any feedback, comments or questions on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you! You can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, nourishedliving.com. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Northwest suburbs.