Making school lunches healthy and affordable

School Lunches

by Sarah Peppel

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School is back in session and with it comes the endless battle to balance healthy school lunches with items that aren't too refined, too sugary, refrigeration needy or microwave needy, among other issues. Food needs to last a couple of hours between the time you pack it and the time it gets eaten. Finding good choices for school lunches can be tough. Keeping food fresh from home to the lunch table can be just as challenging for active youngsters who tend to swing, squish and drop their lunch boxes or bags along the way. Some even turn them into footballs to toss.

Filled with good intentions yesterday, I packed mango slices in a snack baggy and threw a plastic fork into the paper bag. According to my daughter, the fork poked a hole in the bag, the mangos turned to mush and the food fell out of the bag into her tiny locker that doesn't hold the nice roomy, washable lunchboxes I bought last year. I like to pack in containers that will make it back home for re-washing but apparently that's not "cool" in middle school or so I've been told. Now, my other resident expert tells me she is in the .0002% who even brings lunch. What's a mom to do?

When I am trying to pack a balanced meal, I find myself looking for at least one thing each that falls into the categories of protein, good fats, vitamins and fiber. Protein, of course, can come in the obvious forms of lunchmeats and peanut butter. For kids who pick apart their sandwiches, tuna comes in snack packets now (though you have to watch the cost on those.)

For good fats and protein, a snack container or baggie filled with almonds, peanuts (for those who can eat it and for schools who allow it since many more allergies to nuts are appearing), sunflower seeds or cheese slices make a quick and easy snack that should endure the trip from home.

For veggies, cutting up strips of celery or carrots or packing cut apple slices (dipped in lemon to reduce the browning of the apple flesh) take time, but they are worth the vitamins and fiber. Try unusual options like spaghetti squash in a container with a fork. Some parents sneak zucchini into delicious bread recipes, which kids enjoy, but I would strongly encourage getting kids used to eating veggies raw. Hiding nutrients in cooked food can cook those vitamins right out of the veggie, especially when you removed edible skins that deliver all kinds of goodies to the body. Send a bag of cut-up raw broccoli or fresh baby spinach leaves and a pack of salad dressing. At some point, you have to decide that your child's health is more important than inconveniences you suffer coming up with options or they suffer eating the food. I mean heaven forbid that they have to open and pour the salad dressing. They are more than happy to open white icing and dip cookie strips that you find in expensive, preservative-filled pre-packed lunches at the grocery store that I won't name here.

For quick-packed, multi-nutrient school lunches, try making pasta with colorful noodles and Italian dressing that can be eaten cold. Add peas and carrots or cheese chunks for a little extra filling. Sprinkling on parmesan tastes good too. Now we are talking about making the lunch fun to look at and eat! I found a suggestion by a parent online who said they love to roll out their bread with a rolling pin, slather it with a thin coat of jelly or peanut butter and roll it into a jelly roll. Kids and teachers both love it. Others cut their sandwiches into fun shapes like butterflies and circles.

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By establishing a healthy, balanced lunch routine early, children will hopefully look for the right choices to purchase and eat when they are on their own. As for packing school lunches on a budget, try to buy snacks, veggies or fruit in bulk and pack in washable containers for the best savings. Send dinner leftovers, too! Pack soup in a thermos. There are many creative ways to cut lunch costs. Send your own snacks or drinks to add to the school meal if they are buying and it isn't enough. As always, look for those valuable coupons that cut the cost of everything and keep the money in your pocket for another day.

Reviewed September 2017

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