Mom shares tips on packing school lunches for kids

Colorful pasta salad
Colorful pasta salad
Published Aug. 10, 2015

The thought of making a child's lunch for an entire school year can be daunting. Keeping packed lunches healthy, exciting and fresh can be a difficult task. As a mother of two boys ages 11 and 12 who has been making their lunches for close to 8 years, I use three strategies in my weekly school lunch planning: the right equipment, a balanced menu and fun.

Must-haves: In addition to an insulated lunch box, there are some must-haves for successful lunch-packing. The first: ice packs. I like to use the ice mats made by Thermos, which bend slightly to fit different containers. (Slip them into a plastic zip-top bag to avoid condensation issues.) You may also need a hot/cold thermos for foods like pasta, soups, chili and the like. It's best to consider one that will keep the food hot for the appropriate amount of time from lunch packing to lunch time; they range anywhere from 4 to 7 hours. The second essential: plastic containers in a variety of sizes, for items such as cheese cubes, crackers (less potential for crushing if they're in a container as opposed to a plastic bag), lunch meat, fruits and yogurt. Some people use silicone muffin cups, but I prefer containers with lids. The last of the must-haves are zip-top bags and toothpicks (get blunt, rounded tip ones for younger kids).

Find a balance: Packing a healthy, balanced lunch that kids will actually enjoy can be tricky. Incorporating dairy, protein, grains, vegetables and fruit is challenging; don't stress about getting all of them in every lunch. What is important is making sure your child has enough to eat. Before the new week begins, and as I'm making my weekend shopping list, I ask my kids what they'd like to have for lunches the following week. We discuss proteins like turkey breast, chicken breast, roast beef and ham and then talk about how to present them: sandwiches, wraps or pinwheels, pitas, chicken salad, mixed with pasta or salad. Salads, regular or pasta, are a great way to incorporate the main food groups including protein, grains and vegetables. They offer a lot of variety, too, so lunches don't get boring. When making sandwiches or wraps, mix up the spreads. You don't always need to use mayonnaise or mustard; mix a small amount of cranberry sauce into mayonnaise for a mildly tart twist to a turkey wrap. A little creamy horseradish mixed with mayonnaise adds zing to a roast beef sandwich. If you're spending a fortune on Lunchables, it's easy to make your own with portioned crackers, lunch meats and cheeses.

Now, for the fun: Food on sticks is always more fun to eat. Using mini pretzel sticks, spear cheese cubes alternately with folded strips of sliced lunchmeat. (Poke a hole in the cheese cube with a toothpick if it's difficult to get on the pretzel.) Use toothpicks or lollipop sticks to spear chunks of cantaloupe, watermelon, sliced strawberries, pineapple and blueberries. Try making the food interactive, too. Separately pack chopped strawberries, granola and yogurt, and have kids sprinkle the berries and granola on the yogurt to make their own parfait.