Pack a healthy lunch


Do you find yourself standing in the kitchen singing “Packin’ the Lunchbox Blues” — and the school year hasn’t even started yet? Lunchboxes might do things these days they never did before — like light up and emit sounds, — but they still don’t pack themselves. The predictable meal of a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, mozzarella stick, juice box and yogurt becomes quite unappealing to young children after a while, like going to a restaurant where the menu never changes. For most of us, the most exciting part about opening our lunchboxes every day was discovering what Mom or Dad had packed for dessert — not the processed cheese sandwich. Trading away lunch was a common pastime in the cafeteria.

healthy lunchLet’s start with examining the modernday lunchbox itself, which is light-years ahead of the tin versions of yesteryear. Now your child can carry a lunch bag, a neoprene tote or a lunch backpack in non-toxic, BPA-free and dishwasher-safe materials, with compartments designed for both hot and cold foods. Some lunchboxes have custom compartments that fit together like a puzzle, similar to the layout of a bento box, which allow users to pack portions aligned with USDA MyPlate guidelines.

A little history about the lunchbox reveals that Americans have an obsession with the item — collectors have paid more than $13,000 for mint-condition vintage lunchboxes. Companies have been licensing images of Mickey Mouse on lunchboxes since as far back as the 1930s. If only we had held onto our childhood lunchboxes bearing colorful images of Superman, The Lone Ranger and the Yellow Submarine with the smiling faces of The Fab Four — we could be rich.

But, as with most things, it’s what’s inside the lunchbox that matters most. Usually, a packed lunch includes a sandwich, a snack, a fruit and a drink. Packing lunch five days a week means you’ll need 20 foods or beverages a week in total. The key to packing a healthy lunch kids will want to eat is to make it tasty, avoid repetition, introduce new items and monitor what’s coming back home to see what needs to be replaced. Parents who lead by example by introducing new and healthy foods at home on a regular basis and who involve their children in packing school lunches — from the planning to the shopping and assembly — will have the most success.

Here are a few tips to help you and your kids enjoy lunch time again.

MUNCHIES: Skip the typical chips and crackers. Healthy snacks — look for baked alternatives to fried versions — include rice cakes, pita chips, lentil chips, veggie straws, freeze-dried fruit or lime-flavored multigrain tortilla chips. Sweet potato chips, kale chips and chips that taste like dill pickles are flavorful and satisfy the need for a bit of savory crunch.

SANDWICHES: When it comes to sandwich bread, the more whole multi-grains, the better. Sprouted bread, which is whole-grain bread that has been allowed to sprout, has become wildly popular and is raising the bar on healthy bread. Other types of breads to consider: whole-wheat pita, which acts as a pocket and can hold meat, spreads, salads, cheese and veggies; and small soft corn tortillas, which can be rolled and tucked in at the ends.

FRUIT: Instead of packing an apple, which usually comes back home bruised and uneaten, opt for apple purées or other purées. These pouches are a great way to provide fruit in combinations like apple and mango, pear, apple and carrot — and can be a smart way to sneak in vegetables, too. What used to be commonly referred to as “fruit leather” is now known as “strips” and “ropes” and also comes in fruit and vegetable combinations such as carrot and ginger or berries and spinach.

MILKS, YOGURTS & DRINKS: Drinkables, squeezables and pouches of kids’ favorite milk and yogurt flavors like strawberry banana and key lime pie are abundant. Naturally flavored with juices, still and carbonated waters are delicious alternatives to plain water. Soy milk, coconut waters (with or without pulp) infused with mango, lime, chocolate or cinnamon and flavored green teas and teas infused with pomegranate, peach or ginger are refreshing options, too. And juice boxes labeled “no sugar added” can help reduce both sugar and calories.