Bag Lunches Could Be Poor Choice Cautions LSU AgCenter Nutritionist

Elizabeth S. Reames  |  7/15/2005 2:48:34 AM

2005 Back-to-school News

Some children prefer to bring their lunches to school. A problem with take-along lunches, though, is that they’re often filled with high-fat treats and have few, if any, fruits or vegetables, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.

"Lunches packed at home can be less expensive than eating out, but if wise choices are not made, they can be more expensive," Reames says.

The nutritionist says this is especially true for children who could eat lunch as part of the school lunch program. If the sack lunch is made up of purchased packets of individual servings of foods such as chips, cookies and ready-to-eat entrees, it will usually cost more than the cafeteria meal.

"Lunches you pack for children or adults to take along with them can be both healthful and delicious," Reames asserts, explaining, "Portable lunches can help provide proper nourishment to fuel the school or work day. Just as breakfast gets you through the morning, lunch helps keep you alert throughout the afternoon."

Hungry people have trouble concentrating on schoolwork or jobs and may not perform at their highest levels. Lunch should include about one-third of the day’s protein, calories, vitamins and minerals. A nutritious lunch includes two or more servings of fruits and vegetables, one or two servings of grains, some protein and a beverage – preferably milk or a milk product for children.

Protein comes in many forms, including meat, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, nuts, peanut butter, beans, milk and milk products. Use of leftovers to provide protein may require less preparation than a sandwich. When milk is not the beverage, cheese or yogurt may provide calcium as well as protein.

"When you are packing lunches, it’s important to keep the food safe," Reames says, offering these safety tips:

• Wash hands, workspaces and utensils before preparing food.

• Use insulated containers for take-along lunches. If you prefer to use brown paper lunch bags, do not use pre-used bags or grocery bags. These bags already could contain harmful bacteria.

• Clean lunch boxes, food containers and insulated bottles with hot soapy water after each use.

• Don't allow perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish or eggs to remain at room temperature for more than two hours, one hour in hot weather. The appearance and smell of food are not always changed by the presence of bacteria.

• If your child brings leftovers back home, they’re probably not safe to eat. When in doubt, throw it out.

• Sandwiches made the night before should be refrigerated and placed directly into a cooled lunch bag in the morning.

• To keep foods cold, freeze meat sandwiches the night before. Put frozen individual ice packets or boxes of frozen fruit juices in plastic bags to prevent sweating, and place next to sandwiches in the lunch box or bag to keep them cold.

Reames says if you can’t keep foods at safe temperatures, choose foods such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hard cheeses, unopened canned meats, canned fish or canned beans, fresh or dried fruits, fresh vegetables, breads, crackers, canned fruit or vegetable juice.

To save time, prepare large batches of sandwiches ahead of time. Freeze for up to two weeks. To keep bread from getting soggy, spread margarine or low-fat cream cheese evenly to the edge of each slice. Fillings that freeze well are meat, poultry, cheese and cheese spreads, tuna salad, peanut butter and nut spreads. Egg whites, mayonnaise and fresh vegetables do not freeze well.

Reames offers additional ideas for nutritious lunches:

• Stuff a pita pocket with vegetables, cheese or peanut butter and fruit.

• Pack whole-wheat crackers along with chicken or tuna salad.

• Try a healthy veggie sandwich made with whole-wheat bread, roasted red bell pepper, peeled cucumber, tomato slices, Monterey Jack cheese, alfalfa sprouts and reduced-calorie mayonnaise.

• Pack cottage cheese with minced green pepper and chopped dried apricots on mini bagels.

• Stuff vegetables or fruit. Stuff green pepper, banana pepper or apple with sandwich filling.

• Put in yogurt and diced fruit sprinkled with granola.

• Make a lettuce sandwich. Roll sandwich filling in a large lettuce leaf. Eat with crackers or bread sticks.

• For nutritious desserts, try nuts, dried fruits or cookies with oatmeal.

Many people enjoy variety in their take-along lunches, and some children like to eat the same thing every day. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit and milk is nutritious and may be your child’s choice almost every day.

For more information about eating healthfully using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid, contact your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office. For information on related nutrition, family and consumer topics, click on the Family and Home link on the LSU AgCenter Web site at


On the Internet: LSU AgCenter:

Source: Beth Reames (225) 578-3929, or

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