Sarah Remmer: The Non-Diet Dietitian


Packing Healthy School Lunches: Top 8 Sanity-Saving Tips

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

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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