Packing a Healthy Lunch Box

Cathy Agan  |  8/1/2012 6:35:51 PM

It’s almost time for the school bells to start ringing again. Back to school often means back to packing the lunch box for many parents. Take-along lunches can be safe, tasty, and nutritious with just a little proper planning.

Hungry children have trouble concentrating on schoolwork and may not perform at their highest levels. Just as breakfast helps get kids through the morning, a healthy lunch will help keep them alert throughout the afternoon.

A good lunch includes:

  • Protein – Protein comes in many forms including milk and milk products, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, beans, and peanut butter.
  • Grains – This food group includes options such as bread, cereal, rice, and pasta. Grains provide energy, vitamins, and fiber. More fiber is found in whole grain foods so aim to make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Fruits and Vegetables – The healthiest lunches will have at least one fruit and one vegetable. Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. When served raw, fruits and vegetables need little preparation. To cut down on mess, drain canned fruits before packing them in tight containers. Coat cut fruits such as apples with lemon juice or other fruit juice with vitamin C to keep them from darkening. Pack the dressing for green salads separately to keep greens crisp until ready to eat.
  • Beverage – Milk is the best choice for children because it contains calcium and other nutrients needed for good health. A 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice is another good beverage choice especially if the meal contains cheese or yogurt, which has the same nutrients as milk. Check labels since beverages labeled as “fruit drinks” often contain very little if any fruit juice. Soft drinks are high in added sugars and low in other nutrients so try to avoid them when packing lunches.

Children often enjoy snacks and desserts with their lunch. When making these selections, try to choose those low in added sugars, salt, and fat. To save money, buy large bags of snack items and package them yourself in sandwich bags or small containers rather than purchasing individually packaged treats. It is okay to have a cookie or other sweet as long as the rest of the healthy meal is eaten and calories are not a problem. Cookies with oatmeal, nuts, or dried fruit are more nutritious. Keep serving sizes small. One or two cookies should be plenty.

Keep food safety in mind when packing lunches to go. Start with clean hands and a clean work area. Keep in mind that food should never be allowed to stay at room temperature for more than two hours. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. All fruits and vegetables must be kept cold once they are cut or peeled. Insulated lunch boxes or bags with an ice pack or other cold source are best for keeping perishable food cold. Wash lunch boxes or bags inside and out and wash ice packs after each use.

If it is not possible to keep perishable foods at a safe temperature, you can choose foods that can be kept safely at room temperature. Some examples are:

  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts
  • Jerky
  • Some canned puddings
  • Bread, crackers, rolls, bagels
  • Whole, uncut fresh fruit
  • Dried fruits
  • Individual cans of fruit
  • Whole, uncut vegetables such as cherry tomatoes
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