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Bringing Balance: 10 Tips for School Lunches

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One month of school lunches down….9 to go. If that makes you cringe – don’t fret! School lunches don’t have to be boring and with a just a little planning, they can actually be pretty much hassle-free. Here are 10 great tips to keep you out of the sandwich rut this year:

Think bento box, not lunchbox! Lunch can be so many things besides a sandwich, and a deli box of assorted finger foods is often the easiest way to keeps things fresh and varied. Try whole grain pita, hummus, grapes, carrots and celery; or cubed chicken, white cheddar, sliced apple, whole grain crackers and a mixture of raisins, sunflower & pumpkin seeds, for example. You can buy inexpensive containers with dividers or in a variety of sizes for easy deli box packing.

Ice, Ice, Baby! Sending frozen food keeps everything in the lunch bag cool, & many foods (like frozen healthy muffins or granola bars) will be nicely defrosted by lunchtime. Frozen berries with a little maple syrup and some sunflower seeds in plain yogurt keep the yoghurt cool all day. A smoothie made with frozen berries and banana will also remain super-chilly until the lunch bell rings.

Heat Things Up! A good thermos will keep things to for 5 hours, and allows you to send almost anything for lunch, including last night’s leftovers. Send soup, pasta and sauce, or hot oatmeal with berries and maple syrup, they’ll all be nice and warm at lunchtime. Be sure to invest in a good-quality thermos, the cheaper versions often don’t live up to their promises.

Become a weekend warrior! Every Sunday, get your kids involved in prepping some of the basics for the weeks’ lunches. Peel and cut some carrots, celery and cucumber sticks in bulk, for example, and pack in single-serve containers. Make homemade, nut-free granola bars or healthy mini-muffins and freeze 2/3 of the batch for weeks to come (Try the Chocolate Chip Granola Bars or Good Morning Muffins in my cookbook, “Real Food for Real Families”,both are nut-free & freeze well. Make a batch of chicken noodle or veggie soup & freeze in one-cup portions. Defrost in the fridge overnight, reheat and send in a thermos for a delicious hot lunch once or twice a week. I like to use small mason jars or other lidded glass jars – just be sure to leave a little room at the top for freezer expansion!


Don’t Go Nuts! With the nut allergy policies, peanut butter is out, but there are lots of great alternatives for sandwich spreads: Try sunflower seed butter or “Sunbutter” (one of my faves) or another seed butter. Plain cream cheese with apple butter (a natural jam with low sugars) or sliced strawberries makes a great sandwich, and hummus is a yummy, healthy condiment when layered with cucumbers, spinach and tomato.

Switch Up Your Crust! There are so many ways to make the basic sandwich more interesting. Instead of the usual two slices of bread, why not try another whole grain option: whole grain waffles (make on the weekend and freeze leftovers), pitas, tortillas, rice cakes, & pancakes or crepes can all make fun envelopes for the fillings.

Pack a Protein Punch! Don’t send a carb-filled lunchbox. Refined carbs like white flours and sugars will just provide a your kids with a quick blood sugar high followed by a corresponding low, making it difficult for them to focus & learn. Send good carbs like whole grains, veggies & fruits, but pair them with some protein and a little healthy fat for a longer-lasting, steadier release of energy. Easy lunchbox proteins include hummus, hard-boiled eggs, cubed cooked chicken, cubed white cheese, edamame & chickpeas. Easy healthy fats include: sunflower and pumpkin seeds, avocado or guacamole, healthy salad dressings & dips and olives.

Send Some Lunchbox Love! A little love note, a kids’ joke or trivia fact, or a reminder about a fun after-school activity can make an anxious child’s day, especially in the early days of September. Make a few up on little cards on the weekend, keep them in a drawer in the kitchen, and toss them in the lunch bag once in a while to remind your wee ones you’re thinking of them even when you’re not together!

lunch love

Pack Light! It’s very common for small children just starting school to be overwhelmed at lunchtime and not eat much lunch at all. Expect that, and talk to them about it if the lunch comes home uneaten. Sometimes they can’t figure out how to open the containers, other times they can’t eat fast enough (they’ll only have about 15-20 minutes at most public schools), or maybe they get distracted socially and forget to eat. Packing a lighter lunch sets them up for success: If you pack less they’re less likely to be overwhelmed, more likely to eat, and you’ll have the opportunity to praise them when they get home. Slowly add more food as they get better at finishing most of what you send.

Set Cafeteria Rules! If your goal is to send a packed lunch most days, I recommend setting some boundaries at the beginning of the school year about the number of times your child will visit the cafeteria to prevent begging down the road: You might agree on once a month, or twice a year, or never, but believe me if you don’t decide upfront those darn menus will become a thorn in your parent backside! Set a healthy pattern early and by the time they’re in grade 2 they’ll stop asking altogether!

Wendy McCallum, LLB, RHN, is passionate about providing busy parents with the tools & support they need to feed their families wholesome food, so everyone can play, learn, and feel better!  She is a mother of two terrific nine-year old kids. For information and recipe ideas, visit her website or pick-up her cookbook

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