by Stephanie Frank
The meticulously packed lunch, planned with the very best ingredients will fuel a growing mind through an arduous school day filled with test-taking and friend-making. But the challenges of packing the perfect lunch can be many: nutrition, time, budget, and the difficult-to-decipher edibility. However, with a little planning and thought into what your child enjoys, fun and easy lunches are possible.
Pack or buy?
To decide whether to pack or buy lunch, first look at the school lunch menu to determine if the food meets your family’s health standards. Then, take a look at the menu with your child. Even a non-picky eater may not want to eat the school lunch for whatever reason. If this is the case, there is simply no reason to buy it – especially since you will not be there with words of encouragement. Also, how will that lunch money be used? Most schools offer a well-balanced ‘healthy’ lunch. However, will your child buy a la carte instead of the set meal and end up eating a spam musubi and melona pop? An honest discussion about your child’s preference for school or home lunch can lead to less uneaten food and more nourishment.
Next consider the convenience of the school lunch. Will a long line for lunch lead to only ten minutes to fuel-up? If you have more than one child, it may be inconvenient to remember which is packing and which is buying on which days. Also, different schools want lunches to be paid in different manners – exact change, cash only, pre-buy lunch tickets – which can further add to the confusion of school lunches.
Finally think about the cost
While school lunches are relatively cheap with Hawai‘i public schools charging less than three dollars per lunch, healthy packed lunches can also be reasonably priced when shopping in bulk and adding a lot of fruits and vegetables.
The perfect lunch accessories
Fun lunch accessories can make bringing lunch even more exciting for your keiki. Perhaps you have a yearly back-to-school ritual of your child picking out his or her own superhero or glittery lunch bag or perhaps he or she has been hinting at a certain lunch box that makes the perfect present.
For containers, bento box style is better since they reduce difficult-to-open packages. Often during lunchtime, a teacher will be running around the room trying to open tricky containers or packages, which limits the already limited lunch time. In addition, bento boxes allow for various fun little foods for lunch. Also, a cool reusable water bottle keeps that working mind hydrated. Many adorable and reusable fork sets are on the market that add an ounce of excitement when stabbing that fruit slice.
A plethora of fun, relatively inexpensive packing lunch accessories can be found online or in stores like Don Quijote. To spice up the bland peanut butter and jelly sandwich, use a crust cutter shaped like dolphins and a heart, for example. Use cookie cutters in the shape of letters, stars, or animals to slice up fruits or vegetables. Add stickers or candy eyes to create other creatures from ordinary foods. Creative lunch bags can be used to pack fruits or sandwiches. For free, print out sweet “lunch messages” online and add one to your keiki’s lunch to remind him or her that “You’re the apple of my eye!” or “You’re one smart cookie!”
The ideal ingredients
“Snap, crunch, squish.” A variety of healthy foods that your child likes are the best lunch foods. Before going on a shopping spree, know your school’s rules about lunch. Are certain foods, like nuts, prohibited? Also, avoid messy items or foods that spill easily. Most importantly, try to avoid embarrassing foods or foods keiki will not eat; including your child in the lunch-making process will help ensure a face lighting up with excitement at lunchtime.
A balanced lunchbox should contain items from all the food groups. For grains, pack whole wheat if possible and add variety instead of the regular slices of bread, such as tortilla, crackers, pita, mini bagels, pretzels, or quinoa. Chicken, turkey, nuts, or hummus make great protein options, and low-fat yogurt (with sprinkles for fun) or cheese from the dairy group adds additional protein. Pack as many vegetables as possible to your child’s lunch. Find what he or she likes. Some easy veggie options are cucumbers, carrots, snap peas, broccoli, or mini peppers. Try serving raw veggies, or steaming veggies and making them into shapes with cookie cutters, enhancing their appeal. Fruits can be the natural sugar dessert and some options include small bananas, grapes, berries, apples, peeled clementine, or even dried fruits; again, discover your child’s favorite and let them enjoy. For a drink, water is always best, but if your child likes milk, feel free to serve it to them at lunch. If juice is desired, select reduced sugar and real fruit juice. You can also consider watering it down.
Figuring out how much to pack each day can take some trial and error, especially if extra snacks are needed. Encourage your child to be honest about what he or she did not eat, so you can pack something he or she will enjoy eating. Uneaten or eaten foods can start conversations about how much to pack or if something took too much time to eat.
To make packing lunches easier, set up a drawer in the kitchen with all the necessities: containers, stickers, baggies, plastic wrap, and utensils. Using dinner leftovers is also a great way to make lunch easy, and add a fun element to the repetitive entree, such as alphabet-shaped melon. Packing the night before can alleviate the morning rush, and even better – teach your child to pack his or her own lunch, from washing the containers to packing a balanced lunch with the ingredients you already bought.
With a little thought and the right simple ingredients, the everyday lunch challenge can turn into a fun family activity that fills bellies and provides the necessary nutrition and extra excitement to excel through the rest of the day.