LunchboxIt’s the start of the school year and time again to think about packing lunches for your kids. You want to provide food that will fuel your children’s proper growth and development, but finding fun and healthy meal ideas can be challenging. The good news: It’s not impossible. Get your kids off to a fresh, nutritious, and safe start this school year by taking these tips.

Do pack foods with nutrients your kids need. A growing child has higher nutritional needs than adults, so every bite counts. Children may not get enough iron, calcium, fiber, or vitamins A and C. Good sources of iron are green leafy veggies, meats, poultry, and beans. Meet calcium needs with low-fat and nonfat dairy products as well as fortified juices and cereals, green leafy veggies, and beans. To boost fiber intake, choose foods containing whole grains, such as brown rice and whole wheat bread, along with beans, lentils, fruits, and veggies. Giving your kids a variety of fruits and veggies also will help meet their needs for vitamins A and C.

Do think before you pack. Packing a well-balanced lunch containing all the food groups takes some planning. Include a whole grain (for example, whole wheat bread or pita or a whole grain wrap or cereal), lean protein (such as chicken, beef, pork, peanut butter, eggs, or hummus), a fruit, a veggie, and dairy (nonfat or low-fat plain milk).

Do get creative. Punch up your child’s lunch with some of these creative ideas:
  • Cut veggies to dip in hummus.
  • Put fresh fruit on skewers to dip in low-fat vanilla yogurt.
  • Use cookie cutters on sandwiches—kids love to eat fun shapes.
  • Make cheese and low-sodium turkey roll-ups.
  • Pack whole grain cereal and low-fat or nonfat milk.
  • Put leftover meals in whole grain wraps, such as rice and beans, quinoa salad, or grilled chicken.
  • Thread cubed cheese, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken, and mushrooms on skewers.
Do keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Some schools have refrigerators to keep lunches cold, but many do not. To keep foods cold, refrigerate all the lunch ingredients and the empty lunchbox the night before. Beverages such as juice boxes and water bottles can be frozen and used as ice packs. Toss a few ice packs in the lunch box before your child heads out the door.

To keep foods hot, fill a thermos with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Spill out the hot water and immediately place the hot food in the thermos. Keep it tightly covered until lunch.

Do work together. Teamwork keeps everyone happy and healthy. Sit with your children to plan a weekly menu and then go to the market together. Teach your kids to read labels, tell them about the various foods available, and explain why you chose one food over another. Openly communicating about acceptable and unacceptable lunch choices can help your children learn lifelong healthy habits.

Don’t pack foods with little nutritional value. Kids typically consume too much fat, sugar, and sodium. Fats, especially artery-clogging saturated fat, are found in whole milk, certain meats, butter, and chicken skin. Children get added sugar from cookies, cakes, candy, cereal, and sugary drinks such as soda, lemonade, and iced teas, and sodium from processed foods such as deli meats, canned foods, and salty snacks (for example, chips and pretzels). Pack these not-so-healthy foods sparingly, if at all.

Don’t start with a dirty lunchbox. The last thing you want is for your little one to get sick. Bacteria can grow in a dirty lunchbox so make sure to wash it with soap and warm water. To prevent mold growth, let it air-dry or wipe it dry using a paper towel and clean after each use. If the lunchbox is a little smelly, add a touch of baking soda.

Don’t give in to begging, crying, or pleading. Peer pressure is a concern in the lunchroom. Your children may want an unhealthy food that’s popular among their peers. Stick to your guns. You often can find a healthier alternative at the store or make your own healthier version. Try reasoning with your children and remember, as a parent and caregiver, you need to make sure the right foods are packed for their daily lunches.

Don’t keep leftovers. Bacteria thrive on foods such as yogurt, deli sandwiches, cheese, eggs, meat, and poultry—especially when these foods sit at room temperature for more than four hours. To avoid harmful “food bugs,” teach your children to toss leftovers right away. Remember to pack a nonperishable food for them to enjoy as a late-afternoon snack, such as a granola bar, unsalted pretzels, or an apple. Also, never reuse any foil, plastic wrap, or paper or plastic bags that may contain lingering bacteria.