While breakfast is touted as the most important meal of the day, when it comes to the health of young children, you can’t overlook lunch.
A healthy, balanced school lunch will sustain your child’s energy and concentration throughout the afternoon.
“Any time you have a big gap of time between meals, your blood sugar drops and your concentration is compromised,” says Erin Schenkenberger, a dietitian for the Summa Health System.
For a well-balanced lunch, she recommends including these basics: something whole grain, a fruit, a vegetable, a form of protein and some dairy.
Knowing what to include is one thing, but finding the time to pack a healthy lunch can be difficult — not to mention the challenge of getting your kids to actually eat what you’ve packed.
Luckily, several dieticians and experienced moms have offered their input for making elementary school lunches nutritious and fun.
Lunch Packing Strategies
Being able to whip up a great school lunch requires some planning.
Think about your budget and time constraints during the week, then shop and prepare accordingly.
“Plan before you go grocery shopping so you have everything on hand,” says Sally Phillips, a clinical dietician for Akron Children’s Hospital. “Buy pre-cut vegetables and fruit cups, or cut vegetables and wash fruit in advance.”
Schenkenberger says she packs her daughters’ lunches right after dinner the night before, often enlisting their help. “If they can do things like put carrots in a bag or wash an apple, that’s a way to get them involved and save myself some time.”
“Our daughters only eat half of a sandwich,” says Shannon Goss, a mom of two from Hudson. “So we always make a sandwich, cut it in half and save half for the next day’s lunch.”
While she buys some convenience foods, Goss opts for healthier choices like granola bars and fruit cups. “They’ll get bored with the same things every day, so I buy a couple different brands or flavors of something and mix up the variety throughout the week.”
“With two lunches to pack, we stick to an assembly line,” said Mindy Wahl, a mother of three (two of whom are school-aged) from Strongsville. “I have the boys get out their lunch boxes, Thermoses and give me their ‘order’ for the kind of fruit, crunchy snack and sandwich or entree for the day.”
Achieving Healthy and Fun
Even an ultra-healthy lunch isn’t beneficial if your child won’t eat it. Try adding an element of fun so your kids look forward to their meals.
“Get into the habit of having kids bring home what they are not eating — and teach them it is wasteful to throw food away,” says Laura Jeffers, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “If they are eating their classmate’s snacks, find out what foods those are and attempt to incorporate them or something similar.”
“If you teach them the importance of healthy food and eating treats in moderation, they’ll understand why they can’t have junk food in their lunch every day,” Schenkenberger says, adding there are other ways to make lunch exciting besides putting in sweets — fun straws, bento boxes and shiny packaging, for example.
Tara Weigner, mom of three from Akron, regularly searches Pinterest for ideas to make her kids’ lunches more fun. “Instead of regular fruit, I’ll cut a skewer in half so it’s shorter and put fruit on the skewer. I cut things into shapes to make them more enticing to eat. I also do things like pinch the middle of a bag with a clothespin to make it look like a butterfly.”
“Our kids get really tickled when we put leftovers in their lunch,” Wahl says. “So every once in a while we add heated leftovers in a Thermos or even cold pizza.”
Goss includes non-food items, like a pencil, bookmark, stickers or a personalized note, to spice up her daughters’ lunches.
If you’ve been stuck in a lunch-packing rut or are on a quest to improve your child’s nutrition, the start of the school year is a great time to revisit your strategy. With a little planning and creativity, lunch just may become the best part of your child’s day.
For more lunch box ideas, visit Northeast Ohio Parent’s “Lunch Box” Pinterest board.