It’s early morning as you slather on some PB & J on bread, grab a piece of fruit and a granola bar and reach for your child’s lunchbox, only to find a duplicate version of the lunch you just prepared, untouched from the day before. Sigh.
Don’t give up. You simply need some more interesting options up your sleeve. Just be sure to keep a few do’s and don’ts in mind when it comes to midday meal planning.
The ‘do’ list
Keep it green. Be sure to pack vegetables and fresh fruits. This sounds like an obvious tip, but it’s an extra step that often gets skipped, especially if the parent feels like whatever they pack will get tossed anyway. To help ensure they don’t end up in the trash can, considering cutting up the produce. Kids are much more likely to eat their fruits and veggies in cut form than when they are left whole. Toss in a dip, too. Kids love to dip. Try a creamy low-fat ranch or herbed yogurt dip.
Keep it whole-grain. Choosing whole-grain options is easy when it comes to breads, pastas, crackers or pretzels. There are almost as many items listed as “whole-grain” on the grocery store shelves than not. Be aware, though, that the language can be deceiving. Look for products that list a whole grain as the first item on the label’s ingredient list, such as whole wheat, graham flour, oatmeal, whole oats, brown rice, wild rice, whole-grain corn, popcorn, whole-grain barley, whole-wheat bulgur and whole rye.
Keep it fun. Think out of the box when it comes to the main course. Yes, the PB & J sandwich is a classic, but if that’s all you pack, most kids will tire of it. Try your own homemade version of Lunchables and use whole-grain crackers, real cheese and meats that aren’t pumped with sodium (such as leftover grilled beef or chicken), or tacos that your child can assemble as they’re eating. Kids, both young and old, love a meal they can construct themselves.
Keep it easy. Anything that’s too precious or time-consuming to make isn’t going to get done, at least not often. Plan your dinner the night before with the next day’s lunchbox in mind. Leftovers can often be transformed into quick and tasty lunches the next day. Extra grilled meat or vegetables can be stuffed into a roll or wrapped up in a tortilla with a little flavored cream cheese or a favorite condiment. Cold pasta can be converted into a quick pasta salad. Soups and stews can be frozen and reheated at a later date.
The ‘don’t’ list
Don’t keep it too sweet. Packing artificial sugary drinks or juices defeats the purpose of a healthful lunch. Stick with drinks such as water or juices that are 100 percent juice. On hot days, try freezing them in their bottles. They can help keep the rest of the lunch cold and still be cool when lunchtime rolls around.
Don’t keep it in the ‘danger zone.’ Hot food should be kept hot and cold food should be kept cold. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly in the “danger zone” — the temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. Perishable food packed without a cold source won’t stay safe long. An insulated lunchbox and a chilled freezer gel pack should keep perishable food safe to eat until lunch. To keep hot foods hot, use an insulated bottle. If you don’t have what you need to keep a particular food out of the danger zone, don’t pack it.
Don’t keep it dirty. A clean lunchbox is a safe lunchbox. You don’t want their lunches coming into contact with old spills that might contain bacteria. A little scrubbing with hot, soapy water will have that lunchbox sparkling clean in no time.
Don’t keep it soggy. Sandwiches are certainly a lunchbox mainstay, but if you’ve ever dragged around a lunchbox on a playground, or played catch with it on the bus, you know what was once a lovely sandwich can turn into a mushy, soggy mess by the time the lunch bell rings. Try making your sandwich with a heartier alternative to regular sandwich bread, like a baguette, sturdy roll, tortilla or even whole-grain pancakes or waffles. Or, better yet, forgo the sandwich altogether for some more creative ideas.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina, and mother of three. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.