How to Make the Perfect School Lunch

The Perfect Lunch – Back to School Style

by Lindsey Woodkey

It’s that time again. Back to school shopping, brisk fall mornings, and streets filled with school buses. Ready or not, the kids are going back. The biggest question I get from parents is what foods they should send with their children for lunch. Your child’s nutrition plays a big role in their academic success and performance in after school sports. How can food help them reach their full potential?

Your child’s lunch should have the following components: a main course (healthy proteins, carbohydrates and fats), a serving of fruit, a serving of vegetables, a serving of low fat dairy (or dairy alternative if your child has a milk allergy), and a “fun” item. Now let’s break each of these down and give you a few choices.

The main course – This is the “bulk” of your child’s lunch. It needs to have whole grain carbohydrates for energy, lean proteins to keep hunger pains away, and healthy fats for proper growth and development. For the carbohydrate, think whole grain breads or wraps (first ingredient listed should be “whole grain”), a serving of high fiber crackers (look for ones without “hydrogenated oils”, the key word for trans fats), or if you have leftover brown rice, whole grain pasta, or potato in the fridge those can make great options (make sure your child likes the item cold or has the ability to heat them up). Feeling adventurous? Whole grain frozen waffles can serve as a fun substitute for bread. For the lean protein, stick with turkey, low fat ham, chicken, or lean beef. When using deli meats, look for ones low in sodium and preferably “nitrate free”. Cooking your own is safest, but that’s not always an option. If your child is not a big meat eater, send a hard-boiled egg, peanut butter, or hummus. All are high in protein, and also have healthy fats. If you choose to include these items, don’t worry about sending another source of good fats, but if not, use avocado, low fat mayonnaise, reduced fat cheese, or a small serving of almonds. (Make sure to check your school’s “nut policy”. Due to allergies, many schools are banning nuts and nut butters. If this is the case, sunflower seed butter or Tahini can be good replacements).

Fruit and veggie sides – This is the component too many parents leave out. Make sure to send your child with items you know they’ll eat. This is not the time to introduce your child to new foods (broccoli anyone?). Sliced carrots, celery and cucumbers travel well, and including fun dips can make eating veggies easier. Think low fat ranch, hummus, or natural peanut butter. Pack fruits that won’t bruise easily. Apples, oranges (as long as your child can peel them), sliced peaches or pears (packed in Tupperware), and grapes work well. Once again, find a fruit your child enjoys or you’ll find it still in their lunchbox after school.

Dairy – Make sure the serving of dairy you send with your child is not a sugar bomb. Low fat yogurt, cottage cheese or milk are good options, as are reduced-fat cheese sticks. If your child is lactose intolerant or has a milk allergy, consider soy, almond, or rice milk products. Make sure the item you choose is low in sugar, does not contain any hydrogenated oils, and is the correct portion size (1 cup
milk, 6-8 oz. yogurt, ½ cup cottage cheese, 1 cheese stick, etc.).

While you want to send your children with healthy lunches, you do not want to deprive them of all sweets, chips and pop. Teach them about moderation and portion sizes. In lunches, allow them to choose one “fun” item a day. Of course, try to make the healthier choice (baked chips, homemade cookies, dried fruits without added sugars, and sugar-free pudding/Jell-O cups.) Especially watch out for sugary children’s drinks. Capri Suns, Sunny D, and Regular Kool-Aid will leave your child with a sugar high, then send them crashing down once class begins. Stick with water, low fat milk, or sugar free beverages (Crystal Light, G2, etc.).

A discussion about children’s lunches would not be complete without including food safety. Gone are the days you threw a mayonnaise-laden sandwich in a brown paper sack and called it good. Find a well-insulated lunch container and an ice pack that will last at least four hours. Make sure the ice pack is in the top of the cooler as cold air will travel downward. Consider freezing items that can be frozen. They will thaw throughout the day and keep the other foods colder. Be especially careful of  things like mayonnaise, meats, eggs, and dairy (place them closet to the ice pack).

Keep your kids performing their best this school year with nutrient-packed lunches. For some of my favorite “kid approved” recipes, see Tosca Reno’s “Clean Eating Family and Kids” and/or Devin Alexander’s “Biggest Loser Family Cookbook”. Parents can benefit from these lunch “rules” as well.  Set a good example for your children by packing your lunch to work instead of grabbing take out.  Not only will you save money, but also excess salt, sugar, and calories. Here’s to a happy, healthy school year!

Lindsey Woodkey of Ellensburg is a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor with bachelors’ degrees in exercise science and nutrition from Central Washington University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *