School Lunches: Friend or Foe?

by Laura on September 19, 2013

in Featured, Food, Planning


I’m a couple weeks into packing lunches for the kids, and things are going pretty smoothly. For the most part, lunch boxes are coming home empty, and when they aren’t empty, I’m querying my children as to why their lunch has not been eaten. I’ve heard a variety of reasons from “You gave me too much to eat,” or “I was talking to so and so,” to  the more straightforward reason, “I don’t like it.”

I’ve taken it all in – made mental notes of the why behind the lunch coming home, as well as making note of the victories (i.e. empty lunches).

But, we’ve only been back to school for less than a month, and deep down, I know, that things will eventually turn south. I’ll loose my enthusiasm for making lunches just as the kids will loose their enthusiasm for eating them.

Which is why it is time to revisit my Summer 2013 resolution — to figure out a way to better manage lunchtime.

First, let me explain a bit about that resolution that I pretty much ignored. . .

By the time the kids wrapped up school in late June, I was done with making lunches. Four lunches, five days a week, throughout the school year, really adds up. (for more lunchtime numbers, visit my end of school year post, Lunch by Numbers)

That is why I made a resolution for the summer to figure out a way to make it go much more smoothly when it came time to get back to school. I resolved to create a list of lunch items that the kids would like. I made the resolve to try out new lunchtime recipes that would help with the variety of what I packed for lunch, and to figure out  a way to get them to eat a more balanced meal (I’ve a carb-only eater in the bunch).

But, as summers go, time slips away, and by the time the first day of school came around in early September, I found myself making the same old lunches that I did back in June.

Enough is enough. This week, I’m kicking into gear, and starting that list of lunch items that will help me stay out of the rut I get myself into – That rut that includes serving the same things, not planning ahead as to what the kids will eat, wrapping my head around the likes and dislikes of each of them, and expanding my lunch options horizons, so that in a month’s time, they’re not asking me to stop giving them the same sandwich every single day.

Here’s how I did it:

First I looked at my goals, and what I wanted to accomplish when it came to lunchtime:

1. Quick and easy to make.

2. Balanced nutritionally – along with brain food.

3. Ideally one lunch for all four – not a smorgasbord of 4 different meals

4. Minimizing lunches returned uneaten

5. No waste lunch – no packaged foods that included extra bags or containers that were to be thrown away after

6. A healthy mid-morning snack


Then I took a look at their goals:

1. Exciting to eat – and variety. Nothing is worse than a boring lunch – other than the same boring lunch served day in and day out.

2. Quick to eat – The faster they eat, the faster they get to the playground

3. Foods that travel well. Egg salad is too stinky, foods can’t touch when packed in the box (i.e. sandwich crumbs on the carrots means they won’t be eaten), and hot foods, such as pizza, need to be hot by the time they get to lunch.

4. Something sweet – “Everyone else gets a treat a treat, why can’t we have a piece of a candy?”

Next, I began thinking about how I could meet all, or most, of these goals.

I started out with getting the children involved in the process of making of lunch, as it is a great way to give them life skills. This is something Trina Robertson, MS, RD, Project Manager for Dairy Council of California recently suggested to me, and certainly something that I can be better at, especially as my children are getting old enough to help.

Following her suggestion, I got busy with the kids compiling a list of foods they liked, including snacks and healthy treats. We then talked about what foods they might be willing to try in the lunch – a way that we could expand beyond the same old sandwich every day.

I then got their input as to which foods travel better than others. As I found out, something they might like at home, just might not be appealing when packed and eaten several hours later.

I took their suggestions, and looked at how I could create a balanced meal that was enticing for them to eat. As the Dairy Council of California points out, “A balanced boxed lunch should contain foods from each of the five food groups — Milk & Milk Products, Vegetables, Fruits, Grains and Meat & Beans. This variety gives children the nutrients they need to prevent a drop in blood sugar for several hours.” Making a balanced lunchbox for your child can be quick and easy.

I know that cookies and crackers are their preferred choice for snacks, but I also know that what they need during the day is brain food – foods that give energy for all that running around on the playground and for thinking in the classroom.

In addition to coming up with brain food snacks (homemade granola bars, blueberries, yogurt), Maryann Jacobsen Ms., Rd. founding editor of “Raise Healthy Eaters,” a popular blog about family nutrition,offers up some thought on how to keep their brains ready for learning all day long in her article Five Ways to Rev up Your Child’s Brain for Learning.

With all this information on hand, I then had to tackle the process of planning and packing the lunches. I had to remember that they still needed to be involved. Robertson suggested making packing a lunch a game where kids get to choose what they want to put in their lunch. Then, I could review the contents with them to see if they are missing any of the five food groups. “Be sure to give your child a couple of options to add to their lunch so the final result includes food from all five food groups,” she suggests.

Shop with your children

Shop with your children

As for my other goals for lunchmaking, Robertson points us to a variety of ideas that were found on the Dairy Council of California site  – here are a few of the tips I found most helpful:

* Gradually add new, healthy ingredients to their meals

* Take them grocery shopping with you, so they can let you know what they would like in their lunches

* Swap crackers or rice cakes for bread

* Repurpose leftovers in a pita pocket or over rice for a chneg of pace.

* Make dinner with the kids – chances are if they’re feeling included in the dinner making process, they’ll be more excited about getting involved in the lunch-making. Start the conversation about what they could have as a leftover served for lunch.


Armed with my new resolve, and this great information from Robertson, and the Dairy Council of California, I feel confident that I’ve come up with a plan – one that will help me get through it all. I think school lunches just might be my friend now.


Check out my article School Lunches – Recipes & Inspiration, where you’ll find a collection of lunch recipes that help you ensure you pack a balanced meal that is sure to be gobbled up.


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