Back to School: Tips for Healthy Lunchboxes

The minute we get relaxed and comfortable with our summer schedules, including late lunches on the porch or at the park, it hits again.

Back-to-school means parents must think about lunchboxes instead of sandboxes.

For the children who like to take lunch to school, parents must plan to make sure what goes into the lunchbox provides children with the vitamins and minerals they need to grow and develop. But if the child won't eat it, it doesn't matter how nutritious the lunch is. Parents have to make the two work together.

"The key to packing a successful lunch is to allow the children to help pack, or let them pack within some parameters," said Sandra Bastin, associate extension professor at the University of Kentucky.

Bastin, a food and nutrition specialist, tells her children James, 12, and Victoria, 11, that they must include one fruit and vegetable (dip is permissible for fresh veggies), one dairy product (yogurt, cheese, milk) and a source of protein (peanut butter, meat, meat sticks, cheese).

No sweets without prior approval. "Consequently, they get really creative," Bastin said. "Of course, my responsibility is to have foods available, so I have a cabinet full of ravioli, soups, canned and dried fruits. The refrigerator has whatever fruits and vegetables are available. I always send extra blueberries, cherries, homemade fruit rollups, kiwi and oranges because invariably the other kids want to try them."

"My kids get tired of sandwiches, so we do a lot of wraps, whole-grain crackers, lettuce leaves. If I do a wrap with turkey, there's either chopped-up lettuce, tomatoes or spinach," she said.

It's important to have the right equipment to pack a lunch. If you send soup or spaghetti, it needs to be hot. If you send something perishable, it needs to be on ice.

Here are some suggestions to liven up lunch fare:

  • Choose fruits that are easy to eat and not messy. Peel fruits that need it, and cut them into finger-size pieces for younger children.
  • Vary the bread from plain sliced bread to raisin bread, pita pockets, dinner rolls, flour tortillas or minibagels.
  • Rice cakes are a fun addition. Pack tuna salad, peanut butter or cheese spread in a separate container to be spooned on at lunchtime so the cakes don't get soggy.
  • If your child likes cold pizza, send it for lunch. Pizza is not a bad choice.
  • Minimuffins are the perfect size for kids' lunches. Use your favorite recipe, but use smaller tins.
  • A thermos of hot soup is perfect for cold days.
  • Cut sandwiches into diamonds, triangles, rectangles or other fun shapes.
  • Make your own trail mix using your child's favorite cereal, raisins, nuts and minipretzels. Toss in a few fruit gummies.
  • Send along naturally sweetened fruit cocktail in a container to mix with yogurt.
  • Mix cream cheese with raisins and a dash of honey to spread on graham crackers.
  • You don't have to make a sandwich. Pack string cheese and ham sticks with a honey-mustard sauce for dipping.
  • Finger foods always go over well. Look over your favorite cold appetizer recipes with your child's lunch in mind.
  • Granola bars and Fruit Newtons will satisfy a sweet tooth, but be sure to read labels. Some are not as healthful as you might think.
  • Mix shredded carrots with raisins, unflavored yogurt, and a bit of honey for a crunchy salad.
  • Make fruit kebabs of cubes of favorite fruits using thin strips of celery for skewers.
  • Cut veggies into finger-food sizes, and accompany with seasoned cream cheese for dipping.
  • Low-fat microwave popcorn can be popped quickly and sent along. Be sure to put it in a sealed bag to retain freshness.
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