Better School Lunches
Committing to family mealtimes at least two to three times during the school week can make a big difference in nutrition and family dynamics. Even if your schedule only allows for a take-out pizza, make it a veggie pizza with salad greens on the side, low fat milk to drink, and fresh grapes for dessert. Turn off the radio or TV, get everyone to sit down together, and talk about the day.
Work together to prepare the family meal, remembering to wash hands before starting. Younger children can help wash fruits and vegetables, or set the table. Older children can help look for recipes in cookbooks or on Web sites. With your guidance, children can develop the skills for planning a delicious, nutritious, and balanced menu. Food safety skills are also important.
Kids can help pack brown bag lunches the night before to reduce rushing in the morning.
Freezer gel packs, frozen juice boxes, or a frozen sandwich help keep lunch at a safe temperature when children don't have refrigerators at their school. Make your own peanut butter crackers with whole grain crackers. Include baby carrots or cucumber slices. Apples and pears pack well, as do single servings of canned fruits. Pretzels and air-popped popcorn are a good alternative to chips and cheese curls. Include a water bottle, and encourage children to buy low fat milk at school.
Pack a Safe Lunch 101
Here are some quick tips to packing a safe school lunch from the Partnership for Food Safety Education.
- Always keep it clean. Make sure your hands, food preparation surfaces and utensils are clean. Use hot, soapy water to effectively get rid of bacteria. Teach your children to wash their hands before they eat. Also wash fruits and vegetables before packing them in your child's lunch.
- Be sure to keep hot foods such as soup, chili or stew hot by using an insulated bottle. Fill the bottle with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Empty the bottle and then fill it with piping hot food. Keep the bottle closed until lunchtime.
- Cold foods should stay cold, so invest in a freezer gel pack (available in supermarkets and kitchen supply stores) and an insulated lunch box. Freezer gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime, but are not recommended for all-day storage. Any perishable food (i.e. meat, poultry, or egg sandwiches) not eaten at lunch should be discarded.
- If your child chooses a brown paper bag to carry lunch, it's especially important to include a cold source. A freezer gel pack or a frozen sandwich works well. Because brown paper bags tend to become soggy or leak as cold foods thaw, be sure to use an extra paper bag to create a double layer. Double-bagging will also help insulate the food better.
- Tell your child to use the refrigerator at school, if one is available. If not, make sure they keep their lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators, baseboards and other heat sources found in the classroom.
- Every parent should have a supply of shelf-stable foods for easy packing. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, crackers, peanut butter sandwiches, packaged pudding and canned fruits or meats.
- Freeze single-sized juice packs overnight and place the frozen drink in your child's lunch. The juice will thaw by lunchtime, but it will still be cold. The frozen drink will also keep the rest of the lunch cold.
- If you make sandwiches the night before, keep them in the refrigerator until packing up to go in the morning.
Links & Resources
More Healthful Lunches from www.foodandhealth.com (PDF)
Start Out Smart: A Consumer Guide to the Most Important Meal of the Day from The Minute Maid Company (PDF)
Team Up at Home: Fun Nutrition Activities for the Family from USDA's Team Nutrition and The National PTA (PDF)
Beth Winthrop, RD