The packed lunch: a daily tug-of-war between what your child wants, what they need and what ingredients (and time) you actually have to offer. Throw in allergies and limited storage options, and you have the daily, dreaded “What do I pack for lunch?” dilemma.
For elementary-school-age and older kids, buying school lunches is an increasingly appealing option, but for daycare and schools without prepared lunches, the packed-lunch burden falls to family. Keeping a few tips in mind, however, can make the task less challenging.
First, throw your notion of the perfect lunch out the window, and stop viewing your child’s lunch through your adult preferences, says Anne-Marie Gloster, registered dietitian and food science lecturer at the University of Washington.
Photo: University of Washington School of Public Health
Anne-Marie Gloster, Ph.D., RD
“It helps parents to understand that kids don’t need to have things that ‘match’ the way we like them to in an adult meal,” Gloster says. “They also need to understand that kids will enjoy eating the same thing day after day for a longer stretch than we grown-ups would, and that is OK too!”
Gloster created a handy chart for herself and those she works with that helps make packing lunches easier. It is really about thinking about the pattern, and having the list written out so that the process is less taxing on the parent, she says.
“I talk to parents who are worried their kids will starve themselves if they don’t give them what they are asking for,” says Gloster. “Stop worrying. Kids won’t starve themselves. They are training you. It’s your job to stock the house with nutritious and well-balanced foods now, while you make the choices. They aren’t getting in the car and driving to buy their food, and when they are hungry, they will eat.”
Gloster herself is not immune to the struggle. When her now-12-year-old daughter was younger, she brought home empty wrappers from school and said, “‘This is what my friends get to eat; I want this.’ Kids do feel peer pressure over lunch items,‘’ she says. “And so parents need to talk to their children about it and find a middle ground together.”
“It is very important to have children eat real food, as opposed to processed food, as much as possible,” says Dr. Uma Pisharody, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Swedish Medical Center. “When you make it with your own hands, it is often healthier. You know what is going into it and are more likely to limit the sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.”
A typical day for your child, says Pisharody, should include three meals and two or three snacks.
“It’s not about the calories, it’s about the quality of food for children who are still growing every day,” she says. “They need to get plenty of protein and fiber, and avoid added sugar when possible. As long as it’s real food, I am not really focused on the calorie count. When it comes to healthy eating, I would rather a child have 250 calories of fruit or whole grains than 150 calories of a low-fat candy.”
Pisharody also advises parents to “totally avoid juice, even 100 percent juice. There is no real fiber, just sugar.”
Water and whole milk are best. If that’s not exciting enough for your little one, try infusing your water with real fruit, or offering sparkling water.
Today, parents often have to think about not only their own child’s allergies or preferences when packing lunches, but also the allergies of other children at their daycare or school. That said, it doesn’t always limit you as much as you may think, according to Pisharody. If your child’s classroom has banned tree nuts, for example, you need to avoid nuts including almonds and cashews, but peanut butter and seeds would be fine, as peanuts are actually legumes. Alternatively, if peanuts are off limits, consider using almond butter.
Then there is the matter of keeping the food safe while on the go, and at daycare or school. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the “danger zone” — temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. This means that perishable food won’t stay safe long unless packed with ice. Food including meat, poultry and eggs must be kept cold, and should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.
When it comes to packing lunches, pack just the amount of perishable food that can be eaten at lunchtime. If you prepare cooked food ahead of time, allow for it to thoroughly chill in the refrigerator, and keep lunches refrigerated until you leave home. Insulated, soft-sided lunchboxes or bags, best for keeping food cold, include at least two cold sources, on the top and bottom of the lunch. Afterward, toss any uneaten food and packaging that can’t be cleaned to avoid food-borne illness.
On the other hand, if packing a lunch just doesn't work for you on any given day, buying lunch is a much healthier option than it used to be -The Case for Buying School Lunch