Healthy lunches kids will love 9/12
(This article is adapted from ConsumerReports.org.)
Making lunches at home can help you ensure kids' school-day meals are healthy and delicious. The do-it-yourself approach also can help picky eaters get something they really like to eat.
Sure, it 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.
Adding the ‘Yum’ factor
Of course you want a 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 the 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. 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.
When it comes to drinks, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting fruit juice to 4 to 6 ounces per day for kids 1 to 6 years old, and 8 to 12 ounces for older children. That could help kids avoid calories and cavities. Milk might be a better choice.
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 time-saving 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 co-founder 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 no-crust 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.
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.
• Use an insulated lunch box containing a freezer gel pack (see "Great lunch gear").Great lunch gear
• Use an insulated bottle for cold liquids. For cold drinks, chill the bottle and liquid thoroughly before filling.
• For hot liquids, fill an insulated bottle with hot water; let sit for 2 minutes before filling.
• 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.
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, non-leak 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. Consumer Reports hasn’t tested the products listed below, but they represent the choices you’ll find. Retailers cited are given as examples—in some cases you may be able to buy the lunch boxes elsewhere.
Bento Lunch Box 2.0--$23.99-- Laptop Lunches; www.laptoplunches.com. This box features sealable, watertight containers and lids are microwave safe, dishwasher top rack safe, no phthalates, BPA, PVC, or Lead.
LunchBots Uno All Stainless Lunch Box -- $16.99, LunchBots; www.lunchbots.com. These 18/8 all stainless-steel containers are designed with one compartment to hold dry foods. Other styles have compartments. No linings and no toxins. Colored lids are available. (Lids are not watertight.)
PackIt Personal Cooler-- $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. No Lead, No PVC, BPA-free.
Phases Vacuum Insulated Leak-Proof Straw Bottle -- $13.99, Foogoo Foogoo; www.walgreens.com. This 10-oz. vacuum bottle has unbreakable stainless steel construction and is dishwasher safe, sweat-proof, leak-proof, and BPA-free.
Slimline Quaddie Lunchbox -- $9.99, The Container Store; www.containerstore.com. This four-compartment, polypropylene container has hinged top compartments that allow you to pack a sandwich and sides. Includes an 8-oz. drink bottle. Top rack dishwasher–safe and BPA-free.
Best sliced turkey. 9/12
Healthy alternatives to white bread. 9/12