Laura Streeter has had plenty of real-world experience with packing kids’ lunches for school.
With a 12th grader, a ninth grader, and a fifth grader at home, Streeter has pretty much seen it all.
“They tried school lunch, but two of my three kids wanted home lunch,” said Streeter, a Salt Lake City-based nutrition education assistant with Food $ense, the state’s education arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP-Ed).
And now, with Utah’s students in the back-to-school throes of a new academic year, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about sending kids off to class with lunch boxes full of nutritious, delicious and (monetarily) judicious foods.
Casey Coombs is the assistant program director for SNAP-Ed’s Create Better Health Utah at Utah State University in Logan. She says the lunches schools offer are required by law to law to be nutritious.
“So school lunches can be a healthy choice if your kid prefers that,” Coombs said. “But if they don’t, packing something from home is the best model.”
Coombs likes the idea that a home lunch gives a parent total control over the child’s nutrition. Another advantage is that a homemade lunch may give younger students a bit more time to eat.
“For little kids, sometimes that’s a barrier to finishing their lunch,” Coombs said. “So having a little more time — not having to wait in line for their food — can help with that.”
Of course, if you do send young children to school with a lunch, make certain they can open all containers, according to Coombs. A small child might be shy about approaching an adult for that task, and that can mean they don’t eat their lunch.
Coombs suggests families consider a mix of both school lunches and home lunches. She advises parents to sit down with their kids, look at the school’s lunch schedule, and decide which days they’ll be bringing lunch from home.
“A home lunch, depending on what you pack, could be more economical than school lunch — although school lunch can be more economical if the family qualifies for reduced or free lunches,” Coombs said.
One thing that’s popular right now in home lunches, according to Coombs, are these small bento boxes.
“Basically, it’s like Tupperware that keeps things separated,” she said. “That way, the options are endless.”
Streeter says it’s these sorts of options that she looks for when at the grocery store — prepackaged, healthy items that are easy to throw in a lunch box. Kids may prefer bags of chips, but that doesn’t fill them up and it’s not good for them, according to Streeter.
“So a baggie of peanuts or almonds would provide much more nutrition,” she said. “I’ve edited chips out of my kids’ lunch boxes.”
Here are a few back-to-school feeding tips from Coombs and Streeter:
• Safety first. When dealing with foods that need refrigeration, it’s important to keep your children safe, Coombs says. Use an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack — or freeze a juice box or water bottle — to make sure foods requiring refrigeration stay safe to eat, according to Coombs.
To that end, Streeter says individual tubes of yogurt also “freeze beautifully.”
• Diversify. Ideally, get a bit of each of the five basic food groups in a child’s sack lunch — vegetables, fruits, grains, low-fat dairy, and protein.
• Enlist their help. Have kids help plan their own meals.
“The more agency they have in selecting what they eat for lunch, the more likely they are to eat them,” Coombs said. “You can even have them go to the grocery store with you, and help pick out the foods.”
And, have your kids help prepare their lunches. In after-school programs that shifted from adults preparing foods to an assembly line where kids created their own meals, Streeter says fruit and vegetable consumption “went through the roof.”
• Offer choices. In letting your kids be involved with their lunches, give them choices instead of open-ended questions. Rather than saying, “What do you want to eat” — which will usually elicit a “Candy!” or “Ice cream!” response — ask, “Would you rather have an apple, a banana, or grapes?”
• In the Garden of Good and Evil. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” It can cause a poor relationship with food, “because they’ll always want the forbidden fruit,” Coombs said.
• Planning is key. A little bit of planning makes brown-bag lunches a lot easier. And when planning meals for dinner, think about what could be used as leftovers the next day at school.
• Pack the protein. It’s important to have some sort of protein in a child’s lunch box. “It helps them stay full longer in the day,” Streeter said.
• Hot and cold. If you have a good-quality thermos, consider making your child homemade soup or a smoothie for lunch. But if you do opt for a smoothie, Make sure to incorporate the above-mentioned protein.
“If you stick to pure juice or pure fruit, it’ll be sugary and won’t sustain your kids,” Streeter said.
Whereas, mixing peanut butter or peanut butter powder into a smoothie can add that much-needed protein.
Or, throw in some Greek yogurt.
“Greek yogurt is a great source of protein,” Streeter said. “That will fill kids’ tummies.”
(LIFE HACK: Preparing the thermos beforehand is key. For example, pouring boiling water into the thermos for a few minutes before pouring it out and adding the hot soup will keep the soup warmer longer.)
• Don’t wait for morning. “I’m a big believer in doing things the night before,” Streeter said. “Don’t leave the lunch box-making to the morning.”
Even better, prepare a few days’ worth of lunches at one time.
“Have a Sunday-night preparation where you make three days’ worth of lunches,” she said. “Or have crackers and cheese and meat pre-bagged, then they can just grab them in the morning and go to school.”
• Don’t force it. “If you have a kid averse to trying new foods, it’s never conducive to push and push and push to get them to try it,” Streeter said. “The more you push, insist, negotiate and fight, you set up a really bad precedent of fighting for control of what they want to eat versus what you want them to eat.”
The best thing you can do is simply keep offering healthy foods to your children.
“And don’t ever get in the mindset, ‘Oh, my kid won’t eat that,’” Streeter said. “Sometimes if just put the food out — just present it and don’t make a big deal out of it — they’ll start eating it.”
• Gradual changes work best. If you’re looking to make healthy changes to your child’s lunch box, don’t do it all at once. Rather, slowly make changes to your child’s diet, a little at a time.
• Mix it up. “Kids get bored of the same old same old,” Streeter added.
So, for example, if your child is a big fan of sandwiches, changing up the bread occasionally can keep things fresh. Consider using a whole-wheat or spinach tortilla in place of bread.
“Changing the look of a sandwich can make it feel different and special,” Streeter said.
• Finally, don’t be afraid to try something new. If you fear your home lunches have become routine for your children, consider incorporating some new recipes.
And to get you started, here are 10 lunch box ideas, courtesy of the Create Better Health Utah website: https://createbetterhealthutah.org/2019/08/19/whats-for-lunch-school-lunch-box-ideas/.