By Ruth Homan, Community Health Worker
With back-to-school quickly approaching and new lunch rules being implemented, here are some tips for packing fun and nutritious lunches. Let’s feed those brains and growing bodies with great meals on the go that are just as fun as leaving campus!
Packed Lunch Planning and Prep
A great way to get your student on board is to let them be a part of the planning process and preparation. They will be more likely to eat it if they have helped prepare it. Get their input on what they would like to eat that is easy to keep in a locker and ready to eat without much fuss. Just stick with the basic guidelines: At least half of the lunch should consist of fruits and veggies, a lean protein of some sort (about the size of a deck of cards), and depending on your family’s dietary preferences, a bit of dairy, a small serving of whole grain (includes bread and crackers), and a small amount of healthy fat (avocado, nuts, and seeds). Stick to unprocessed ingredients as much as possible and pay attention to saturated fat (less than 18g/day), added sugar (less than 25g/day), and sodium (less than 2300 mg/day) when buying packaged goods.
Choose a night that you have a little time to prepare ready-to-pack ingredients for the week. Cut up veggies, portion fruits and store in individual containers, or in one big container, then portion them up the night before or morning of. Same with lean protein; cook a batch of beans, boiled eggs, or meat of choice. Whole grains can also be cooked for the week ahead and used to make burrito bowls, rice bowls and endless grain salad options. Most meat sandwiches and nut butter type sandwiches can be pre-made and frozen until needed if you want to make them ahead of time (leave off condiments and veggies until eating).
Start with a reusable homemade ice pack to keep everything cool. There are several options. Make sure the younger peeps understand that these are NOT to eat!! Make a couple to always have one frozen.
- Mix 2 parts water with 1 part rubbing alcohol. Optional- a drop of food coloring just for fun and to detect leaks. Double-bag (seal each bag) in zip-lock bags and freeze until needed.
- Saturate a sponge with water, place in a zip-lock and freeze.
- One tablespoon of salt to one cup of water. Double-bag and freeze.
Also handy is a small thermos that can be used for hot items if a microwave isn’t available. Preheat the inside of the thermos with hot water for several minutes prior to filling to keep the food warmer longer.
Menu Ideas You’ll Love
WRAPS-start with a whole wheat tortilla. Spread with cream cheese or hummus, add fillings such as veggies, meat, and/or cheese and roll up. Or peanut butter and jelly.
PINWHEELS-make a wrap and slice into bite-size pieces.
SPRING ROLLS-moisten spring roll wrappers and fill with thinly sliced veggies and a protein if desired.
SALAD JARS-start with dressing in the bottom, and start layering the ingredients, finishing with the greens at the top (to keep from getting soggy) and seal. Simply shake up when ready to eat.
YOGURT PARFAIT JAR-layer granola, plain Greek yogurt, and fruit.
BURRITO BOWLS-start with rice or the cooked grain of your choice. Add your lean protein, beans, salsa, avocado, cheese, etc. Pack a garnish of chopped lettuce in a separate container and add before eating, if desired.
RICE BOWLS-start with the cooked grain of your choice. Add the lean protein and veggies. Add some stir-fry, sweet and sour or soy sauce of choice.
Bowl ingredients can also be layered into mason jars or salad jars for a fun twist.
GRAIN SALADS-whole grains such as barley, bulgur, brown rice, and quinoa are a great base for many salads. Add chopped veggies, lean protein and (optional) cheeses or nuts of your choice. Add a little dressing, or simply drizzle lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to complete the salad.
CHEESE AND CRACKERS-cut cracker-size pieces of meat and cheese, serve with of whole-grain crackers.
KABOBS-cube meats, cheeses, veggies or fruits and thread onto toothpicks or popsicle sticks (for younger kiddos, omit the sticks if necessary).
FRUIT OR VEGGIE DIPPERS-cut up desired produce (examples-apples, carrots, bell peppers, celery, radishes, snow peas, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, or peaches). Make a sweet dip out of Greek yogurt, a touch of honey and cinnamon or a savory dip made from Greek yogurt, a little salt and pepper, and a few herbs to taste. Other dip options- peanut butter or hummus.
LETTUCE WRAPS-stack bibb, romaine or butter lettuce leaves in a container and pack with your favorite fillings, that can be kept warm in a thermos and assembled at lunchtime. Sauté your choice of lean ground protein with oriental sauce of your choice and pack chopped peanuts, sesame seeds, or scallions as garnish.
PEANUT (OR ALTERNATIVE) SAUCE-easy to make and can be used as a salad dressing, in wraps, or as a dipping sauce. There are many great recipes online or: whisk together ¼ cup peanut butter, sunflower seed, or soy nut butter, ⅓ cup warm water, ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce, 2 Tablespoons cider or rice vinegar and 4 teaspoons sugar. Store in a jar for about a week.
The above options provide many ideas for fun, yummy and nutritious lunches. Just remember to use the framework of a healthy meal: at least half veggies and fruit (whole, not juice), about a quarter protein (dairy will contribute some protein) and a quarter whole grain, with a few healthy fats mixed in.