Packing Healthy School Lunches: Part 1

August 18, 2017

Back to school season is right around the corner! Certified health coach and certified plant based cooking Instructor, Lora Downie, is sharing with us some tips and tricks to make packing healthy lunches easy this year.

Lora Downie, owner of Wholebytes

My daughter is a 5th grader. As a preschooler and kindergartener she ate cold soba noodles, massaged kale and steamed broccoli in her lunch. This all changed one day she accidentally spilled her soba noodles on the cafeteria table and all the children around her yelled, “Gross, she’s eating worms!” Oh, joy. We all want our children to eat well. But how can we go about it in a reasonable way given the challenges of peer pressure and the time crunch we are all under?

School lunch is a funny thing, isn’t it? Although it should be viewed as one of the most important parts of our child’s day, our school system sees it much differently. Kids get the fast shuffle. They have to eat in less than 20 mins, and the peer pressure and presence of not so healthy foods is still pervasive. But, there is hope!

Today, let’s dive into the importance of a balanced lunch, the elements that make up a great lunch and some ideas to get us started wherever we are on the spectrum of school lunch packing.

First, let’s take a step back and consider why healthy lunches & snacks are so critical for children of any age.

Focus and capacity for learning: Children are learning new things daily and they need optimal fuel so they can focus and have sufficient energy to get them through the day. Studies show our brain function, energy levels, and hormones can be positively or negatively impacted by the presence or lack of nutritious foods. Think about how we feel when we eat a donut for breakfast and a crummy lunch. I know I feel unfocused, tired and sluggish – and ready to quit by 2pm. All humans need a balanced variety of foods to keep them going strong, mentally and physically. Children especially.

Removing barriers for good behavior: Any adult who witnesses a child’s behavior right after they eat a sugary treat knows that sugar can have a negative impact. If children eat cereal for breakfast and simple carbs for lunch they have no foundation to ground them and sitting still through math just became a bigger challenge.

Staying healthy in germ-ridden surroundings: Balanced meals will boost the immune system, lowering the instances of colds and other illnesses and ultimately lowering the number of absences from school. Getting vitamins, minerals and plenty of fiber helps keep our digestion on track which boosts our immune function. Also, when we consume sugar it has an almost instantaneous impact by lowering our immune system for up to 5 hours after consumption.

Bulk Foods

Now let’s get into the logistics. Some things to consider when packing a balanced lunch and some tips and tricks to efficiently and effectively execute our vision.

First off, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at what a “healthy and balanced” lunch looks like and some strategies for getting a lunch in the bag during the week. What goes into a nutrient-rich mid-day meal? We’ve grown up hearing we need to “eat a balanced diet”, “eat from the major food groups”, etc. But what does that actually look like?

Let’s look at lunch from the perspective of these six food categories:

  1. Water
  2. Protein
  3. Grains
  4. Fruits
  5. Vegetables
  6. Healthy fats

It’s great to strive to incorporate at least one food from each category for lunch and/or snacks.  I think having an a la’ carte list like this makes shopping and choosing new foods much easier. By throwing some items from each group into your car each week (starting with the foods you know your kids will eat, and then slowly adding) you can be sure you will be creating balanced meals. Print out the list below or copy and paste it into a note on your phone so you always have it handy.

Apricots at Hart's Local Grocers

Okay, let’s talk strategies for how we can realistically make this happen.

Take it easy on yourself: Ease into it. We all have many other responsibilities in life. If it only seems possible to pack lunches twice a week, then do it twice a week. If you need to take short cuts, take them and then look for ways to incorporate more home cooked dishes and snacks as the year goes by. The point is to pack as often as realistically possible – not to drive yourself crazy with making everything from scratch right out of the gate.

Planning is KEY: I wish that by just reading (or writing) this post our healthy lunches magically made and packed themselves, but that’s obviously not going to happen. So, the only logical next step is to sit down and write up a plan. This is so helpful with all meal prep. Determine a day of the week when you will sit down and write down your meal plan. For me, Saturday is the day since I do my shopping either Saturday or Sunday.

Remember, your plan doesn’t have to include 5 unique lunches each week. Have 2-3 ideas and then morph the ingredients later in the week. For instance, if you make a batch of hummus on Monday for snacks, smear it on tortillas and add some veggies for sandwich roll-ups later in the week. Or if you make a big pot of soup over the weekend, include a cup of soup with lunch on Monday. Roasted chicken and turkey can be made into chicken salad or sprinkled over a salad.

The good news? Once you have a few solid weeks planned out – just start rotating them and sprinkle in some new foods here and there. Also, share the menu with your children, post it on the fridge and start talking about it before it happens. Have them help in the planning and shopping. If they feel a part of the decision making process they will be more likely to try new foods.

Buy a lunch box that get you thinking “out of the box”: Have you seen bento boxes and compartment boxes? They are the coolest things! They are great because you can think of the food categories mentioned above and somewhat compartmentalize your planning.

If you don’t want to go down the bento box path, think small containers instead of baggies for salads, veggies, fruit, nuts/seeds and cool/hot thermoses for smoothies or soups. This cuts down on waste and makes you think about foods, other than a standard sandwich, that fit into the containers.

Spread out the work load: There is no reason one person has to do all the work! Assign weekly/daily lunch duties to each family member: this week mom makes two homemade snacks, today dad will make a salad and the hummus wraps, Jr. washes the fruit and puts the lunch containers in the dishwasher everyday after school. Get everyone involved!

Make it fun: To get out of the sandwich rut you need to get creative!

  • Use a soup, salad, smoothies or leftovers as the main dish
  • Make a lettuce wrap
  • Use wholegrain crackers instead of bread
  • Use tortillas or sandwich wraps to make sushi style sandwiches

Build variety into your routine: Try to not purchase the same lunch ingredients two weeks in a row. Throw a vegetable in your cart that you or your children may have never tried. Trust your instincts and don’t feel you need a recipe for everything you make. Go with the flavors your family loves and let your imagination go!

Go with a culinary theme one week a month: Indian, Italian, Asian, Mexican, etc. Let the theme run through all of your meals that week and talk about the geography, cultural differences, etc. of your theme country at dinner time! Have your child with you when you google your theme country and find new recipes to try. This works well for both lunch and dinner, so you don’t have to do double duty.

Think of lunch as an opportunity to try new foods: Without parents hovering over them, kids tend to be more adventurous. Also, if you pack the same foods for everyone in the family – call a “new food day” and everyone tries it and you discuss what you thought at dinner that night.

Back To Nature Crackers

I want to point out that the internet is an invaluable tool. There are so many amazing recipes and resources available to us! Next time you are shopping – throw that new vegetable or grain into your cart, you will find a great recipe online once you get home and don’t sweat it if you don’t have everything on the ingredient list. Use your creativity to guide you.

Click here for part 2 of this blog! There’s much more information on food categories and recipes to match!


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