Are You Packing?

Yesterday morning I had the pleasure of appearing on the morning news on 11alive (Atlanta’s local NBC affiliate) with the lovely Donna Lowry discussing school lunch. You can view the segment here. School nutrition is near and dear to my heart after spending several years working for Cobb County School District. I still can’t believe I forgot my camera and didn’t get any pictures of me on the set with Donna or my props (until I got home; see below).

Despite the way the media portrays school lunch, many districts are doing a good job, especially considering the budget and regulatory constraints school systems face. Is there room for improvement? Yes, and every year I see improvements. Many offer fresh fruits and vegetables daily, are incorporating more whole grains in creative ways and stretching their dollars to provide healthy meals. Many kid friendly recipes are lower in sodium, fat and contain whole grains versus their traditional counterparts (i.e., pizza with whole grain crust and low fat cheese; baked chicken nuggets, etc.). Quite frankly, what we served in our school district was much better than the lunches I saw most children packing from home, which often were laden with full fat chips, cookies and lacking in fruits and vegetables.

Buying school lunch is a practical, and often, economical choice for most families. For parents that are interested in buying school lunch, but are skeptical about its nutritional quality, I urge you to actually go to the cafeteria and see what is being served. Look at the menus as a whole and not just one day in isolation. Speak to the cafeteria manager or the foodservice director – you would be surprised about how open most are at talking to parents and educating them about their programs. Also, review the menus with your child and talk about the choices he or she is making.

If you are packing a school lunch though, there are some things to keep in mind. First and foremost, is keeping the food safe. A study published earlier this month in Pediatrics showed that 90% of preschool lunches examined in Texas were not at a safe temperature. The longer a food stays in the danger zone (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit), the more likely it is to grow bacteria and cause a food-borne illness. It is recommended that a food only be in the danger zone for up to 2 hours.

There are many cute and fun new products on the market for keeping your food safe, from ice packs in fun shapes to cool containers designed to keep food cool. I love the truck and monkey ones above I found for my son. Of course it helps to prepare the lunch the night before so that it is already at the proper temperature when it is packed in an insulated lunch box or cooler in the morning with ice packs.

I love this container that I found above. In the bottom you can put a sandwich (I stuffed mini whole wheat pitas with chicken salad and spinach) and/or other items, then the ice pack goes on top and the two smaller containers sit on top of the ice pack. It all fits nicely in the small cooler that my son takes to preschool, with additional room for milk or other items.

While I was getting ready for my segment, I searched the grocery store shelves for new products that make packing a lunch more exciting than the typical sack lunch. Here is what I came up with:

  • Individual hummus packets – this is a great alternative to salad dressing for dipping fresh cut veggies
  • Squeezable yogurt – Stonyfield is my favorite brand and I was excited to see they make these – put them in the freezer overnight and then they are thawed but cold by lunch time
  • Fruit cups packed in natural juices – these are a great non-perishable alternative but avoid those that are artificially sweetened or packed in syrup – Dole was the only brand that I found that met these requirements
  • Individual trail mix – Planters makes an omega-3 blend with walnuts, dried cranberries and dark chocolate covered soy nuts (of course you can always make your own)
  • String cheese – okay this isn’t exactly new, but I still love them in lunches or for snacks

When packing a lunch though, you want to keep it colorful as we eat with our eyes and use MyPlate as a guide. Involving your children in food preparation and shopping also helps encourage picky eaters to try more foods. This may not happen overnight, but over time studies have shown it to be true. Also, studies have shown that it can take 15-20 tries before a child likes a food. This requires a great deal of persistence.


What are some of your favorite creative lunches for your kids?