Packing Healthy School Lunches: Top 8 Sanity-Saving Tips

Stress-free lunch-packing tips from a realistic Dietitian and Mom

Packing Healthy School Lunches: Top 8 Sanity-Saving Tips

healthy school lunch

It's hard to believe that school will be starting soon. It's a big year in our house as my oldest son is starting kindergarten.

Although an exciting time, back-to-school can also be nerve wracking and seem daunting after a summer of not really being in a routine or on a tight schedule. When talking to other moms, it seems that school-lunch packing is among the most daunting of back-to-school tasks. What should you stock up on in the next couple of weeks? What type of lunchbox makes the most sense? Is it OK to include a treat? How do you pack a lunch that's fun for your kid, but also nutritious? How on earth am I going to do this without peanut butter? These are some common questions and concerns that parents may have. 

Here are some sanity-saving tips that will ease your concerns and give you the confidence that... YOU CAN DO THIS! 

1) Set realistic lunch-packing expectations for yourself: 

Try not to become wrapped up in creating the prettiest, funnest or most Pinterest-worthy lunch for your little eaters. Quite frankly, the time and effort you put into this won't likely be met with the appreciation it deserves - kids don't care about this stuff as much as we think. And who has the time?!

Kids want yummy, appealing foods that they have a bit of say in. That's about it. Similarly, take the pressure off when it comes to the types of foods you're packing. In other words, don't lose sleep over whether or not everything in your child's lunch bag is organic, GMO-free, made from scratch, 100% unprocessed, or locally grown. That's way too much pressure. Pack whole foods most of the time (leftover meat, eggs, fish, dairy, fruits, veggies, whole grains) and don't stress about sending some processed items as well. Some of my favourite processed foods are individually packed cheeses, individual flavoured greek yogurts, unsweetened fruit sauces, jarred tomato sauces, store-bought hummus, whole grain crackers, and whole grain granola bars. Kids don't need perfection; they need a nutritious and tasty lunch. 

2) The rule of four:

If anything, try to pack at least four different nutritious foods in your child's lunch. I try to include at least one protein-rich food (meat, tuna, eggs, hummus etc.), one calcium-rich food (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese or cheese), some fruits and/or veggies and a whole grain/starch. After you've packed these four essentials, you can choose what you'll add as a fun treat and maybe an "extra" that might be eaten for snack on the way home from school, such as another piece of fruit. 

3) Think "simple" and "safe" when it comes to lunch packing:

Although I love bento-box style lunch kits (I find that it prompts me to add lots of color and variety and seems more fun for kids), any well-insulated lunch bag or kit will work. If you find that your bento boxes are causing you more stress than not because you're misplacing the insertable containers or lids, don't worry about going back to the basics.

Important To Note: Perishable food should remain at room temperature for no longer than two hours, so it's important that cold foods stay cold and hot foods stay hot. Foods should never reach the temperature "danger zone" of between 4 degrees Celsius and 60 degrees Celsius, because bacteria can multiply quickly and lead to food poisoning.

Foods such as dairy products, meats, peeled and cut fruits and vegetables, mayonnaise, hummus, eggs, and leftovers are all possible breeding grounds for bacteria and should be kept in an insulated lunch bag with a frozen ice pack until eaten at lunch time. Since ice packs are meant to keep cold foods cold (and not chill room temperature foods), it's best to pack and chill lunch items in their containers (and even in the lunch bag) the night before so that you can simply toss an ice pack in the next morning.  

For hot foods like chili, casseroles, soup or stew, make sure to use an insulated container such as a thermos (and keep separate from cold foods). Before storing food, fill the container with boiling water, let it stand for a few minutes, empty it and then add the hot food (remember to heat it until piping hot beforehand). It's important that the insulated container be kept closed tightly until lunchtime to help minimize the risk of temperatures dropping into the "danger zone" where bacterial contamination or growth can occur. It's important to wash lunch kits, containers and ice packs with warm soapy water every day after school so they are clean and ready for packing and to avoid bacteria growth.

4) Give your kids "structured choice":

Kids are more likely to eat their lunch if they have a say, however you as the parent should maintain ultimate control over what your child is served (your child is in charge of whether and how much she eats though). This is why I love giving my kids "structured choice." 

Whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, I let my kids decide between two or three items of my choosing.

For example, I will give my son two dip choices to go with his veggies: "would you like ranch dressing OR hummus to go with your veggies?" Or I will ask him if he'd prefer yogurt OR cottage cheese with his fruit for snack. Giving kids open-ended choice: "what would you like for lunch" puts THEM in charge, which leads to chaos and a disconnect in the division of responsibility of feeding. It can also lead to more selective eating tendencies, and can make your life a lot more stressful. 

5) Have a go-to list: 

Having a list of go-to foods that you can refer to when packing lunches (and stocking your fridge and pantry) is essential. This list doesn't need to be fancy, but contain a nice variety of nutritious and easy food options. Here's a list of Dietitian-approved lunchbox staples, and YMC's allergy blogger, Alexandria Durrell also created a great list of allergy-friendly lunchbox items to choose from. 

6) Take healthy short-cuts: 

There's nothing wrong with buying pre-cut and washed raw veggies or pre-washed and chopped boxed salad mixes if it makes your life easier and increases the chances of you packing fruits and veggies. Similarly, packing some nutritious but processed items such as nitrate-free deli meat, individually wrapped cheeses or yogurts, fruit sauce containers, whole grain cereal in a baggy or whole grain crackers is completely fine. Give yourself a break, and don't worry if your child's lunch isn't picture perfect. 

7) Don't stress about sending the same thing over and over again: 

Monotony isn't necessarily a bad thing. As long as you're sending a nice variety of nutritious foods in your child's lunch (also providing variety throughout the day and week) and switch things up now and then to avoid boredom, it's all good. Just like I prefer to have oatmeal every day for breakfast, it's ok to send the same turkey, cheese and lettuce sandwich most days in your child's lunch too. Just send along some colourful fruits and veggies and a yogurt too! 

8) Make things fun in a simple way:

Instead of just sending apple slices, sprinkle cinnamon on them and give them a couple of tablespoons of vanilla pumpkin dip (pumpkin seed butter mixed with vanilla greek yogurt). And instead of cutting cucumber into disks like you usually do, cut them into cubes or strips instead and add ranch dressing to dip. Voila-FUN! It doesn't take Pinterest-worthy lunches to make them fun and edible. Simple changes can spice things up for our little ones more than you realize. 

YOU"VE GOT THIS. Happy packing!! 

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 RELATED: The Ultimate School Lunch Ideas List



7 Common Reasons Why Your Baby Is Struggling With Solids

Why your baby might not be munching as well as expected

7 Common Reasons Why Your Baby Is Struggling With Solids

Feeding from six to 24 months is often referred to as “the honeymoon stage of feeding” because babies and toddlers tend to accept foods well, experimenting with and tasting anything parents put on their trays, or offer by spoon. This is why picky eating rarely occurs during this stage and surfaces in the older-toddler or preschool years instead. Of course, every baby isn't cut from the same cloth--some babies accept solids better than others, and different babies progress at different rates. Many parents have told me that they feel as though their baby hardly ingests any of the food that is served because after the meal, their baby and the highchair is covered with bits of food.  In most cases, this normal, and your baby is likely eating what he or she needs, if you are paying close attention to her cues.

When to seek help:

It’s important to keep in mind that breast milk and/or formula still provides the majority of baby’s nutrition up until about nine months (solids only provide about one fifth of baby's nutrition up to eight or nine months and then just under half of baby's nutrition from nine to 11 months), which means that although important to introduce a wide variety of foods early on, these first few months serve as a fun and experimental time. If your baby rejects or doesn’t swallow any of the food that is offered at first (even for the first couple of weeks), know that this is normal and to keep trying in a low-pressure way. If your baby continues to reject most foods into her seventh month (whether pureed and offered by spoon, or soft finger foods put on baby’s tray),  however, it may be time to seek professional help from a Pediatric Dietitian or feeding expert to see whether there are oral-motor issues present. 

 RELATED: What To Do When You Have An "Extreme" Picky Eater

Well-meaning but problematic strategies can make matters worse: 

If a baby experiences difficulty with solids, concerned parents may become forceful or domineering when feeding, spoon-feeding in a way that doesn’t support baby’s natural feeding cues (e.g. putting a spoonful of food into baby’s mouth when he isn’t ready or willing to take it). On the other hand, parents may take food away too quickly—before baby is finished—if they aren’t feeding in a “responsive” way (on baby's cue) or are rushing through to get to the next task, or if they are worried that their baby is eating too much. If either of these non-responsive feeding strategies are used regularly, problems can escalate quickly.  Any form of pressured feeding in infancy can lead not only to mistrust and anxiety when it comes eating, it can also perpetuate picky eating and even cause growth and development issues such as failure to thrive.

Timing is important: 

It's important to make sure that you're introducing solids at the right time--not too early and not too late. There is a "sweet-spot" window of opportunity around the age of six months of age (adjusted for prematurity) that seems to be the best time to start solids (some babies are ready in their 5th month), but more importantly, you should pay attention to your baby's cues and introduce solids when he is ready: he can hold himself up on his own and is showing interest in solid foods, perhaps grasping at or reaching out for the food that you're eating. 

If your baby is rejecting certain foods all together: 

When presented with a new food, some babies may make funny faces or, after bringing it to their mouth, spit it out right away. Some parents take this as “rejection” and assume that their baby isn’t a fan and likely won’t be for a long time. Not the case. “Neophobia” is a term that was coined by Leanne Birch, a Pennsylvania State Psychology professor: a fear of the new, and in this case, new food. In most cases, the reaction that babies give to a new and unfamiliar food is nowhere close to a phobia but a normal reaction to something foreign and unknown (think of when you, as an adult, are offered something foreign to eat). Although a baby may reject a new food after the first (or several) offers, with repeated (I'm talking 15-20 times) non-pressured exposure, she will eventually warm up to it and accept it. If you limit your baby’s menu to only what she loves now, she won’t have the opportunity to widen her palate.

 RELATED: How to Create a Healthy Eating Environment For Baby

Here are seven common reasons why your baby may not be eating solids as well as expected: 

1) Baby comes to the table full: Babies have small stomachs, so you want to make sure that you’re feeding frequently—every two hours or so, and then every two to three hours once baby reaches about 12 months. At six months, babies should still be either breast fed on demand or offered four to five bottle feeds per day. At first, you can offer solids once or twice a day, one to two teaspoons at a time (and more as baby cues for it) between breast or bottle feeds--whenever it’s most convenient for you and your baby. You can increase to three to five times (meals and then eventually snacks) per day as your baby gets older. There is no rule that you must breast or formula feed your baby prior to offering solid foods, but many parents feel more comfortable doing this. The issue with this strategy is that your baby may come to the table feeling full and therefore will not be as open to eating solid foods. When babies reject solids, parents often assume that they don’t like them or aren’t interested when really their baby is full from their breast or bottle feed. Make sure that you give your baby a bit of time before offering solids after a full breast or formula feed—an hour or so--to develop a bit of an appetite. On the other hand, you want to make sure that your baby isn’t too hungry when he or she comes to the table—fussiness may deter your baby from trying new foods. Your baby should be alert and slightly hungry when he comes to the table.

2) Baby is too tired and/or fussy: If you bring your baby to the table and offer solids right before a nap or bedtime, you may find that your baby is fussy and disinterested. Make sure that you’re offering solids when your baby is alert and happy.

3) Baby prefers a different texture: As mentioned above, some babies prefer purees over soft finger foods or vice versa. Before spending hours and hours pureeing three month’s worth of organic, local homemade foods for your baby, do a bit of experimenting when you first introduce solids to see what your baby prefers and which method works best for you and your family as well. You may be surprised to find that your baby self-feeds like a charm.

Some parents become concerned and even diagnose their baby with “picky eating” when they find that their baby all of a sudden starts rejecting the pureed veggies that she had previously devoured daily. Often, after a few unsuccessful attempts to feed the same food, well-meaning parents give up and stop offering it. Try to have an open mind and be creative with how you present foods to your baby—she may want to transition to a lumpier texture (or self-feed with finger foods) sooner than you thought!

4) Eating environment is too distracting: If your baby is distracted by toys, music, screens, or siblings (perhaps trying to play with the baby), she may become too distracted to focus on her food. Try to create a healthy and distraction-free environment (preferably at a family table) for your baby to test and enjoy solids foods.

5) Baby feels too much pressure: If you are uptight or anxious at mealtimes, worried about if and how much your baby is eating and perhaps hovering or focusing too much on what she is doing, she may start to feel pressured and anxious herself and eat less because of it. Mealtimes should be fun, calm and relaxed, and this starts with the parents' demeanor. Remember to smile, laugh and stay positive. Take the pressure off of yourself knowing that it is 100% up to baby whether she eats her food and how much she eats. Although you might be tempted to hover over her and analyze her every bite (or lack thereof), try to sit back and focus on your meal, every now and then turning to her with a smile as she experiments with the foods on her tray. Remember that playing, smushing, and smearing food is totally normal and part of becoming familiar with the food (even if the food doesn't actually reach her mouth--it's ok!). If you choose to spoon-feed, follow her cues as to when to bring the spoon to her mouth and when to stop (and it's ok to pause and eat some food yourself too! 

 RELATED: Four Things What Your Might Not Know About Introducing Solids

6) Baby is uncomfortable: If your baby comes to the table with clothes that are too tight, a full diaper, is gassy or constipated, or in pain due to teething, you may have little luck with getting her to eat. Babies may take a solid food hiatus if they are teething, or may prefer softer textures during this time. My daughter--a finger food eater from day one—refused to eat solids when she was teething around eight or nine months. Instead of giving up, I offered her softer, cooler, more soothing foods such as yogurt, cottage cheese, apple sauce, and bananas, which she accepted much better.

If your baby is constipated, she may not feel like eating due to abdominal discomfort. It isn’t uncommon for babies to experience constipation at one time or another, especially when solids are first introduced. It’s important to make sure that your baby is still getting lots of fluids (breast milk or formula as well as water) as well as fibre-rich foods such as fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans and lentils. If you suspect that your baby is constipated, it’s important to talk to a doctor as soon as possible. Signs include: less than three bowel movements in a week (when hard, dry and painful to pass); hard, painful stools for more than two weeks; loose, watery stool accompanied by fever; decreased eating and drinking and less activity and play; fewer wet diapers and other signs of dehydration.

7) Baby can’t grasp foods: If you choose to feed your baby finger foods right from six months (or when you transition to finger foods), you may be tempted to cut your baby’s food into teeny tiny, eensy weensy pieces so that he doesn’t choke. Unfortunately, babies don’t have the fine motor skills to pick up tiny pieces of food and bring them to their mouths until they are around eight or nine months old (or older). This may be why a baby isn’t eating much at mealtime, when really, he wants to! This is why it’s so important that you make baby’s food pieces large enough that he can grasp them on his own. A homemade potato wedge (skin off) or half of a skinless, boneless chicken thigh cut length-wise, or a slice of pear (peeled) are examples of appropriate sized pieces of food. A piece of whole grain toast with some butter on it cut into thick strips would be appropriate too. I would often leave a bit of banana peel on a banana before offering it, so that my daughter could grip it without it slipping through her little hands. Your baby should be able to pick up his food, bring it to his mouth, and “gum” away at it. It is normal for baby to “miss” his mouth or drop his food, but as long as he can bring it to his mouth, it is likely appropriate in size. It is still very important to avoid foods that pose a risk of choking for the first two years of life (or even longer), such as hard fruits and vegetables (e.g. raw carrots), stringy foods (ie. celery), nuts and seeds, whole grapes, a gob of peanut butter (I thinly spread on toast strips), and wieners and popcorn. 

I post practical and credible nutrition information specific to babies, toddler and kids daily on my Facebook page. Feel free to check it out! 

 RELATED: What You Might Not Know About Feeding Your Baby Solids



Berry Good Summer Lunch Smoothie

This all-in smoothie packs a nutrition punch and tastes delicious

Berry Good Summer Lunch Smoothie

lunch time berry smoothies

School lunches are tricky because they need to be nut-free and also need to pack and store well for several hours. This is why I look forward to summer lunch-making. I make smoothies so often during the summer - they don't make it into our lunch rotation much during the school year, but are perfect for busy and hot summer days at home. They're easy to throw together, you can pack a tonne of nutrition into them and they keep kids cool, satisfied and hydrated throughout the afternoon. I use berries because they are some of the most nutritious fruits out there, packed full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, however you can use any frozen fruit that you have on hand.

Instead of adding juice to my smoothies, I add Greek yogurt and milk  to give a protein boost (which helps to sustain fullness over the afternoon) and add creaminess. I also add a tablespoon of nut butter or seeds for extra protein, fibre and heart-healthy fat. Although I don't hide the fact that I also add greens to this smoothie - my kids often help me with this step - I find that smoothies are a fantastic way to "sneak" more greens into our day. Spinach and/or kale blend really well (you can't really notice a change in colour) and don't add a bitter flavour like other veggies might - they take on the flavours of the fruit instead. Adding shredded carrots and cucumber work well too! #You boost the vitamin and mineral content of the smoothie, but you also add more fibre which can help to keep tummies fuller longer. 

Here's our go-to lunchtime smoothie that's both Mom and kid-friendly, nutritious and delicious:

The All-In Berry-licious Smoothie Recipe



Combine in a good quality blender: 

3/4-1 cup fresh or frozen berries
1 banana
1 tbsp natural peanut butter, chia seeds, or hemp hearts
3/4 cup Greek yogurt (I use 2-5% MF)
Large handful of spinach or kale (or you can use frozen spinach like I did)
1/4 cup whole grain rolled oats (optional)
1 cup milk (any type you like). Add more if you need. 
Ice cubes (if you like it extra slushy)


 Blend on low and continue to increase speed as ingredients blend together. Add more milk if needed (you may need to stir manually intermittently to help with blending

 Once smooth, serve in a regular cup with a straw or in a spill-proof straw cup. Enjoy! 

If you're looking for more easy, kid-friendly and healthy recipes for families on the go, check out my Facebook page where I post recipes, nutrition tips, and nutrition articles for parents and kids! 

 RELATED: 7 Delicious Smoothies You Won't Believe Are Healthy