How to prep and pack the perfect school lunch

Healthy choices that'll be the envy of the lunchroom

Last updated: August 2013

You won’t necessarily save money by packing lunch for your kids—school cafeteria fare is pretty cheap. And the lunchroom offers choices that can be just as nutritious as anything you pack. Ah, but will your child choose the salad bar and an apple? Or is he more likely to grab the chicken nuggets with a side of fries? Making lunches at home can help you keep control of your kids' school-day meals and also ensures that picky eaters will have something they like to eat.

Sure, the do-it-yourself approach takes time. But we have good news: By following the guidelines below, you’ll not only shave precious minutes off of your lunch-making routine, you’ll also get new ideas for healthy, palate-pleasing meals—plus expert tips on food safety and cool gear to transport lunch to school in style.

Creating a good lunch

Of course you want your child’s meals to be not only quick to make but also nutritious. When choosing lunch foods, use the government’s My Plate (www.ChooseMyPlate.gov) image as a guide, advises Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Half the plate is fruits and vegetables, a quarter is protein, and a quarter is whole grains. You could get that with a turkey or cheese sandwich, a handful of grapes, and several carrot or celery sticks. Throw in milk or yogurt for calcium and vitamin D. It doesn’t get much simpler.” (Read our recent reports on the best sliced turkey and healthy alternatives to white bread.)

“The amount of food you pack will vary depending on your child’s age, size and activity level,” Sandon says. “A 5-year-old may need only a half-sandwich with 4 ounces of yogurt and a small apple. A teenage boy may need two sandwiches, especially if he’s playing sports after school.” If you pack foods that need to stay warm or cold, make sure they’re in insulated containers (see "Keeping food safe to eat"). And if your child’s school permits students to reheat their food in a microwave, make sure that food is quick to reheat; an entrée that takes 8 minutes to reheat will gobble up a good chunk of his lunchtime—and hold up the line of other kids who are also waiting to use the microwave.

Last, remember that a nutritious meal won’t do your child any good if it goes uneaten. To maximize a meal’s appeal, make food wrappings easy to open, and cut sandwiches, fruit and veggies into small, easy-to-handle pieces (quarters or cookie-cutter shapes). If your child dislikes chewing thick veggie sticks, use a peeler to create long, slender carrot peels. Wrap thin slices of turkey or cheese around celery sticks in place of bread, or make “pinwheels” by wrapping ham and cheese slices together, rolling lengthwise, and cutting the roll crosswise into segments.

Lunch-prep timesaving tips

Plan, plan, plan. “Being prepared is the biggest time-saver of all,” Sandon notes. Start by putting together a week’s worth of lunch and dinner menus for your family. “Then take the time to shop, so that you have the foods on hand when you make meals.”

Cook ahead. “When you’re making dinner, make extra for tomorrow,” advises Jeannette Bessinger, a certified holistic health counselor, cofounder of Real Food Moms (realfoodmoms.com) and coauthor of “Simple Food for Busy Families” (Ten Speed). “If you’re making spaghetti, make extra.” Mix the pasta with a low-fat dressing, and add a couple of ounces of grilled chicken and/or roasted vegetables.

Pack lunches the night before. For optimal speed, pack dinner leftovers directly into individual-serving containers and refrigerate overnight, so they’re ready for a morning grab-and-go. (To avoid sogginess, pack mayo or mustard separately from sandwiches, and store salad veggies in a container with a separate compartment for dressing.)

Make the most of freezer power. Bessinger and her Real Food Moms cofounder Tracee Yablon-Brenner, R.D., CHHC (certified holistic health counselor), save time by making speedy, frozen “muffins.” Just spoon freezer-friendly foods like puréed fruit or applesauce into a muffin tin, then freeze. You can do this with meatloaf or crustless quiche, too—just bake, refrigerate and freeze. Mornings, you can pop one out and pack it for lunch. “The ‘muffin’ acts as a cold-pack for the rest of the food, and it’s thawed by lunchtime,” says Bessinger. “And kids love that individual-serving presentation.” Frozen water bottles or small yogurts work as “ice packs,” too.

Pick prepackaged foods. Those with natural "packaging" (like bananas or hard-boiled eggs) and man-made wrapping are big time-savers. Precut veggies—baby carrots, celery sticks, sugar snap peas—cost more, but offer ease and good nutrition. So do fruit cups; pick those packed in natural juices, not syrup. Tuna salad (with or without mayo) comes in prepacked single-serving foil pouches, notes Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D. Though pricey, it’s versatile and safe.

Have the kids help with lunch. “Maybe you’ll still make the sandwich, but older kids can pick the side dishes and pack the bag,” suggests Sandon. “If your children can choose what they’re eating, they may be more excited about it and more likely to eat it. Also, they can help you pack the right amount.”

Keeping food safe to eat

Foodborne illness is a real hazard. Take these steps to avoid it when prepping and storing foods.

Preparation

  • Wash hands before, during and after preparing meals.
  • Wash knives and utensils in hot, soapy water.
  • Keep pets out of the kitchen.
  • Use one cutting board for produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
  • Use an insulated lunch box containing a freezer gel pack (see "Great lunch gear").
  • Use an insulated bottle for hot or cold liquids. For cold drinks, chill the bottle and liquid thoroughly before filling. For hot liquids, fill the bottle with hot water and let sit for 2 minutes before filling.

 Storage

  • Keep hot foods above 140 degrees and cold foods below 40 degrees.
  • Foods that require chilling include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, tofu, cheese, milk, yogurt, cooked grains, pasta, vegetables, cut-up melon, mayonnaise, cheese sauces, and butter.

Great lunch gear

Lunch boxes have stepped up their game, with options in polyester, stainless steel, and recycled plastics to suit every age and budget. Good lunch boxes or bags feature sturdy construction, good insulation, a pocket for cold packs, airtight/watertight construction, and tight-fitting, nonleak lids and dividers. For younger children, easy-open lids that also hold food securely are a must. Check to ensure that products are free of PVC, BPA, phthalates, and lead. We haven’t tested the products shown here in our labs, but they represent the choices you’ll find. Retailers are cited as examples—in some cases you may be able to buy the lunch boxes elsewhere.

$9.99; Walmart. This soft-sided bag can be attached to a backpack, and has an external pocket and a sandwich container. And, it’s large enough to hold a bottle.

$32.99, Laptop Lunches; www.laptoplunches.com. This box features three sealable, watertight containers, a dip container, and an insulated tote (not shown).

$22.89, Asvel; www.amazon.com. This slim package has two tiers: a larger bottom compartment and a top level divided for smaller items.

$17.99, LunchBots; www.lunchbots.com. These stainless-steel containers are designed to hold solid food. (Keep in mind that they’re not watertight.)

$19.99, The Container Store www.containerstore.com. No cold pack required—just store the bag in the freezer until you’re ready to use it.

$16.85, Kotobuki; www.amazon.com. This cute two-tiered bento is kid-sized; adults may find that it doesn’t hold enough food. Microwave and dishwasher safe.

$17.99, Foogo; www.walgreens.com, www.amazon.com. This 10-oz. vacuum bottle has unbreakable stainless steel construction and is dishwasher safe.

$9.99, www.toysrus.com, The Container Store; www.containerstore.com. This four-compartment container has hinged top compartments that allow you to pack a sandwich and sides. Includes an 8-oz. drink bottle.


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