Back-To-School Checklist: Packing Healthy Lunches

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Julia Kim

By Julia Kim, NBC-HWC, CBS

Making lunches is a chore that often strikes dread in parents of school-aged children. Sandwiches, the lunchbox staple of years past, have been overtaken by bento boxes, cute cutouts and theme lunches. It can all be a little overwhelming and sometimes seem over-the-top. While everyone has their own level of creative flair, remember the best lunch is one that is healthy, appealing, easy to eat, and quick and easy to prepare.

The first step is having the right containers. The popular trend of using a bento or compartment-style lunch container can be really helpful in making a balanced lunch. The compartments can help you visualize the different food groups, assist in portion control and allow you to present an eye-catching, appealing lunch to your child. Another good idea is to have a thermos, which provides an easy way to pack a hot option such as leftovers from last night’s dinner, soup or pasta. Purchasing these items can actually save you money, as you will no longer need to pack six different containers or use plastic bags to offer a variety of food.

The next step is to consider what to pack. A healthy, balanced lunch is important for children who are expending a lot of physical and mental energy during the school day. It should contain a mix of foods depending on your child’s dietary needs and, if applicable, restrictions. A basic rule is to include a whole grain, a protein, a fruit and a vegetable.

And while the traditional sandwich still has a place in the school lunch, it no longer has to be made in the traditional way. Try using wraps, pitas, bagels, naan or rice cakes to offer variety. If you are looking for something new, you could try making Onigirazu – Japanese rice seaweed sandwiches. Other ideas are quesadillas or waffle sandwiches. Beyond sandwiches, other ways to include whole grain and offer variety would be to use pasta, rice, potatoes, couscous or quinoa.

Pair your whole grain with a protein using meat, eggs, tofu or beans. Nuts and nut butters are also good sources of protein but can be problematic in an allergy-friendly school environment. Sunflower butter can be a good alternative. Dairy products such as cheese and yogurt can also be good sources of protein.

Fruits and vegetables can add color and variety. You can mix it up seasonally or rotate your child’s favorites. Vegetables can be mixed in the “main dish” such as a salad with chicken nuggets or vegetable fried rice with tofu. Another option is to offer vegetables as a standalone side dish, cut up in small pieces that are easy to eat. Dips such as hummus or guacamole are another good way to offer vegetables.

Ideas for healthy lunches are virtually endless. To make things easier and more organized, it can be helpful to make a plan for the week. If you are looking for inspiration, there are numerous blogs and websites that offer all sorts of ideas. You can search for options that fit your diet, lifestyle and budget.

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