Nutrition Column – Healthy School Lunch Ideas

For many parents of school-age children, the start of the school year means yet another year of packing a lunch every day. While sending a brown-bag lunch to school with your child can be an economical and healthful choice, it also can be frustrating. After spending the time and money to pack a lunch, it can be disheartening when your child either brings his lunch back home or tells you that "So-and-so’s lunch is always better."

Lunch at school is important both nutritionally and socially. Although children need a midday boost of energy, oftentimes they may be too preoccupied with friends and the "buzz" of the cafeteria to eat well. The key is to provide your kids with foods that are convenient and fun to eat as well as healthful, safe and nutritious.  

A good place to start is by choosing a variety of foods using the Food Guide Pyramid. Include breads and other grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products or other calcium-rich foods and meats, nuts or other meat alternatives. For example, sandwiches, cut raw vegetables, whole or sliced fruit, yogurt and cubed or string cheese are all easy to eat and nutritious foods. It’s okay to pack a couple of cookies, a small bag of chips or low-fat pudding as part of a healthy lunch. Kids sometimes need the extra energy these foods supply, especially if they are fairly active children.

Don’t forget the milk money. Kids need the calcium milk provides for their growing bones. If you prefer to send milk with your child, single-serving containers are available at most supermarkets, or try using a small thermos. Box drinks of 100 percent fruit juice or a small bottle of water are other beverage choices that are usually well-liked and convenient. Freezing juice boxes or plastic water bottles the night before will help keep them cold until lunchtime.

To avoid having to throw a lunch together at the last minute, think through the lunches you will be preparing for the next week, and add the ingredients to your list when you do your regular shopping. Invite your children to help plan and prepare their school lunches. When kids are involved, they may be less likely to swap their veggies for someone else’s brownie.  

Getting creative with packaging also adds to the appeal. Try using theme napkins on holidays or birthdays, or use stickers to seal sandwiches or to close brown bags. Sending a funny cartoon, riddles or a coded message on occasion adds extra pleasure to anyone’s lunch.

Last but not least, if you’re sending perishable foods such as a sandwich with meat or cheese, yogurt, pasta or a deli salad, it’s important to ensure the food will be kept cool. If food is not stored properly, bacteria in and on the food can grow and cause foodborne illness. To keep foods cold, get a lunch box that includes a small freezable cold pack or use a small frozen water bottle or juice pack to keep the foods cold until lunchtime. And, if you’re making sandwiches the night before, be sure to store them in the refrigerator overnight.

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension