School Lunch Redux

By April Guilbault

A heated thermos is a great tool for the lunchbox arsenal. Black beans topped with tomatoes and organic cheese make a great lunch; fold a tortilla and pack it alongside.

What’s on the menu for your kids’ school lunch today? Of course parents want their kids to eat a healthy, filling meal at school, but packing something wholesome from home can become a tiresome chore. Does your heart sink and your blood pressure rise to see uneaten food return back home? Ask most parents their Top 10 reasons why they love summer vacation, and I will guarantee that “not packing school lunch” will be #3 on the list. Here are some ideas for packing healthy school lunches your kids will love.

First, your tools. Forget plastic baggies and bottled water that add waste to landfills. Invest in a refillable water bottle. Washable, reusable food containers come in all shapes and sizes, including bento and tiffin configurations, and are perfect for nestling a sandwich, fruits and veggies, a dipping sauce or some Parmesan cheese. Thermoses insulate food well. Heat a thermos by filling it with boiling water. Let sit 5 minutes, covered (and for safety’s sake, away from the kids and flailing arms), before draining and drying. Cool it by placing, uncovered, in the freezer for 30 minutes or in the fridge overnight. If you can’t remember to do that, chill it with ice water for 5 minutes. If you don’t want to add extra bulk to the box, wax paper bags are perfect for packing sandwiches and snacks, ditto for unbleached parchment paper, which is great for wrapping messy food (grilled cheese!) destined for containers to ensure a quick cleanup.

Thermoses can be "calibrated" to keep food cool AND warm. Canteloupe from Sport Hill Farm travels well.

Organization is key. In my house, the kids and I come up with a weekly written “master list” of all the foods they like for lunch: one column with the “main course,” another with sides, and a third with bonus extras of desserts, drinks and the like.  From this list, they mix and match, letting me know their requests in advance so I can plan accordingly, and for the kids, there are no real surprises in store.

Think healthy, commit to thinking seasonal. Visit your local farm stands and farmers’ markets. That can prompt the idea machine. Right now tomatoes are at their peak (Boy, are they!). How about a batch of  homemade tomato soup (sent in a heated thermos to school) or a classic BLT, made with organic, uncured bacon and local lettuce on whole grain bread? Corn is also in abundance and most kids love it. Shave it off the cob and use it in a wrap with a spread of black beans, slices of cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, some cilantro and a mild salsa. Asian flavors are hits with the younger set. Soba noodles made with protein rich buckwheat are a great alternative to pasta. Douse them with a dressing of lime juice, sesame oil, and soy sauce tossed with thin slices of cucumber, carrot, broccoli. Add slices of chicken, tofu, or shelled edamame (make sure it’s Non-GMO or organic) for an extra protein punch, and it’s a great dish served up warm or cold. And what about leftovers? Family favorites that reheat well, like beef stew or chili, are an easy lunchtime solution.


Look for a spin on a boring old “sammie.” Use lettuce, lavash, pita, or apple slices to replace sliced bread. Instead of cold cuts and sugar laden peanut butter, leftover grilled chicken or steak, falafel, hummus, almond, cashew or sunflower butters are good choices. Take note: nut free rules don’t apply to sunflower butter so if your child is a PB&J fan and open minded, it’s worth a try.

kale chips
Kept in a reusable container, kale chips won't turn into kale dust

Think up new takes on sides. kale chips, orange “smiles” sprinkled with cinnamon and shredded coconut, fruit chunks threaded on skewers (Trust me, kids love to eat anything on a stick.). How about a colorful crudite? Yellow or purple cauliflower and multicolored carrots will surely get any interested child to eat their veggies. So many kids are fans of edamame at the Japanese restaurant, so add it (in the pod) to the lunchbox. Freshly popped popcorn, always great for a snack, pairs well with a sandwich, and adds good fiber and crunch.

And while we’re thinking outside the (lunch)box, why not breakfast for lunch? Pack a reusable cup and spoon, along with a container of organic yogurt, one with granola, and another with berries or a favorite fruit. Let your child go parfait crazy and layer it themselves. Whole grain pancakes or waffles get devoured at breakfast. Why not assume the same with equal gusto at lunch? Cut up and store in a heated thermos. Pack a small container of good maple syrup, honey or macerated fruit, and some sausage (organic turkey, veggie) alongside.

And nix the juice box. Fill a water bottle with “spa water,” adding thin slices of orange, lemon, or lime, some berries, and mint leaves to tap water or sparkling water  you’ve made yourself with the Soda Stream.

Armed with new ideas, packing healthy lunches for kids needn’t be the worst part of a parent’s school year. There are plenty of other woes in store. Think: homework.

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