Eating lunch at school is not just about satiating hunger — it helps kids learn and is an important part of their nutrition intake for the day. Yet despite new guidelines intended to reduce obesity and improve the healthiness of school lunches, eating at the school cafeteria can come with its own set of challenges, particularly if à la carte and fast-food options are available. If your kids are eating school lunches, be sure to talk to them about their choices. And consider asking them to limit their weekly intake of certain foods — for example French fries — and make healthier options.
As I argued in my post on healthy back-to-school habits, however, I still believe that a well-balanced, home-packed lunch is one of the best ways to have a say in what your children are eating. It means you can ensure that they get a lunch that includes lots of fruits and veggies, a protein, and a whole grain — and it also means that you can choose local, unprocessed and/or organic ingredients wherever possible.
Below are some ideas for how to make this happen.
Soups are a great, healthy option for a school lunch, particularly on a cold winter's day. From Classic Tomato Soup through Chicken & Noodle to Creamy, Curried Cauliflower Soup, your options are almost limitless. Just cook up a big batch, store individual portions in freezer bags, and then warm them up as needed and send them off in a thermos. Try offering whole wheat toast, or slices of toasted tortillas as a fun dip to go with it.
I am a huge fan of savory muffins for almost any meal. The Zucchini Millet Muffins that Kimi posted about, for example, offer both whole grains and fresh veggies in one convenient package. And the Cheddar Shallot Muffins that Robin wrote about would make a great side for a salad at school. Speaking of salad...
I often find that people are surprised when I suggest salad as a great kids' food, but that says more about the quality of most salads than it does about kids' tastes. My kids usually love salad in their lunch boxes; I just make sure to include a yummy mixture of different veggies and fruits and good dose of dressing. It doesn't have to be complicated either. For a while in the fall, my 4-year-old was obsessed with slices of cucumber with a little lemon juice squeezed over them — a dish she pretty much devised herself after tasting a cucumber that had been sliced with a knife previously used for lemons!
I realize that sandwiches are the boring, go-to option for many packed lunches. But there's a lot to be said for them. They are easy to eat, they can be created to include all the important food groups (protein, whole grains, and fruits/veggies), and there's an almost infinite variety of options to choose from. Instead of always making PB&J or cheese and lettuce, consider making a bean, cheese and spinach quesadilla with whole grain tortillas, or a pita pocket with cream cheese and shredded cabbage.
There's no reason to always make lunches from scratch. In fact, leftovers from the night before can often be a great addition to the school lunch box. From pizza slices to pasta, we often plan our evening meals with an eye to their potential for lunch the next day, making a little extra and putting it aside in advance.
Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, N.C. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.