Nutrition Column – Pack a Healthy and Safe School Lunch

The school year is upon us, and for many parents of school-age children it means yet another year of packing a lunch every day. While sending a packed lunch to school with your child can be an economical and healthful choice, it can also 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 his friend’s lunch was much better.

Lunch at school is important both nutritionally and socially. Children need a midday boost of energy. Unfortunately, they often are preoccupied with the buzz of the cafeteria or just getting lunch over so they can get out on the playground to eat well. The key is to provide your kids with foods that are convenient and enjoyable to eat as well as nutritious and safe.  

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, 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 often need the extra energy these foods supply, especially if they’re active. Also, 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 possible beverage choices that usually are 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 upcoming week, and make sure the needed ingredients are on your weekly shopping list. Invite your children to help plan and prepare their school lunches. When kids are involved, they are 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 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 until eaten. If food is not stored properly, bacteria in and on the food can grow and cause foodborne illness. To help keep foods cold, include a small frozen cold pack or other cold source in the lunch box to help keep perishable foods cold until lunchtime. Frozen juice boxes work well as edible cold sources. If making sandwiches the night before, be sure to store them in the refrigerator overnight. Finally, if using a lunch box, be sure to clean it out each day after school, wash it with soap and water and let it air dry before repacking.

– 30 –

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