With yet another school year now under way, I’ve been asked to revisit the topic of school lunches. Since I wouldn’t feed the crap they serve in the school lunch line to my worst enemy (okay, maybe my WORST enemy, haha), I opt to pack my kids’ lunches every day. My frugal husband also takes a bag lunch, so many mornings I pack four lunches.
I have to admit, our lunches are rather uninspired. I’m fortunate that my family does not seem to need much variety in their lives, and our typical lunch consists of a PB&J on homemade bread, some type of real cheese, apple slices (organic and local, if possible), and carrot sticks (again with the organic). Sometimes I’ll even replace the jelly with honey because we like to live on the edge.
If I have it handy, I’ll also throw in a baggie of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies or a homemade cookie. And they all take a reusable bottle full of water.
Sometimes I will buy deli turkey that isn’t full of nitrates and preservatives, and they will take a sandwich with that, for a change. Or I’ll just roll it up and put it in a baggie and send cheese slices along with it. They also love tuna.
Last year I tried reheating leftover soup and putting it in a thermos, but they all complained that it wasn’t hot enough by lunch time. So we’re back to our old standby, the PB&J.
However. I know that many of you need more variety than this, and that some of you probably aren’t even allowed to let peanut butter darken the doors of your children’s educational institution due to allergies. So. Here is a list of healthy lunch ideas that I’ve gathered from a variety of sources. To qualify as a healthy lunch, it must be a well-balanced meal (I’m not talking about the whacked-out FDA food pyramid, either) and as much as possible, real food. I try to stay away from sugar and processed foods, particularly of the snacking variety. We do use deli lunch meats and peanut butter.
What To Pack
- organic* peanut butter** and local raw honey or banana slices (or jam, but honey is better) sandwiches on whole wheat bread (homemade is best)
- tuna salad on whole wheat bread (but you probably should only feed kids tuna once or twice a week; the mercury concerns are very real)
- homemade chicken noodle soup (for canned soups, read your labels and avoid cans that are high in sodium and other additives)
- raw veggies such as carrot sticks, red pepper strips, cucumber slices, radishes, celery, cherry tomatoes (or is that a fruit?)
- fresh fruit such as grapes, oranges, pears, peaches, apples, kiwi
- homemade yogurt (or a good quality store bought – whole milk yogurt without HFCS, aspartame, or artificial colors) with granola or fruit
- cheese slices (I love the health benefits of raw cheddar, and my kids love the taste; score!)
- organic* whole milk cottage cheese with fruit
- hard boiled eggs (local pastured eggs, if possible)
- homemade granola bars
- air popped popcorn or popcorn popped in coconut oil on the stove top with sea salt
- trail mix (make your own; it’s cheaper, and you can control what goes into it)
- hummus with whole wheat pita bread
- whole wheat tortilla wraps (Trader Joes makes yummy ones) with meat and cheese or veggies or whatever they like on it
- whole wheat bagels with cream cheese (no light dairy, ew!)
- homemade whole grain muffins
- green salad (my daughter loves spinach salad; go figure)
- leftover dinner
If you have homemade dinner from the night before, heat it up and put it in a thermos. It’s a great quick hot lunch, and it gets rid of your leftovers so you don’t have to eat them. 😉 Some good leftovers are spaghetti, mac and cheese, soup, and casseroles.
- water or milk to drink (I only use stainless steel water bottles now, to avoid BPA)
What To Avoid
Even if you aren’t a food freak like I am, if you are concerned for your kids’ health, here are a few modern day lunchtime staples to avoid at all costs:
I shudder to see kids eating these. They have a ridiculous amount of sodium and practically no nutritional value whatsoever. You’re better off buying the good lunch meat from the deli; by good, I mean the stuff that’s not so processed and has no added nitrates. Throw a few crackers and some cheese slices or a cheese stick in there, and you have a homemade “lunchable” that is cheaper and healthier.
Here is a sample nutrition label from a lunchable:
ROAST WHITE TURKEY – CURED, SMOKE FLAVOR ADDED: WHITE TURKEY, WATER, POTASSIUM LACTATE, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF SALT, DEXTROSE, CARRAGEENAN, SODIUM PHOSPHATES, SODIUM DIACETATE, SODIUM ASCORBATE, SMOKE FLAVOR, SODIUM NITRITE, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR. PASTEURIZED PREPARED CHEDDAR CHEESE PRODUCE: MILK, WHEY, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, MILKFAT, SODIUM CITRATE, SALT, LACTIC ACID, SORBIC ACID AS A PRESERVATIVE, OLEORESIN PAPRIKA (COLOR), ANNATTO (COLOR), CHEESE CULTURE, ENZYMES, WHEY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, WITH STARCH ADDED FOR SLICE SEPARATION. CONTAINS: MILK, WHEAT CRACKERS: ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2],FOLIC ACID), SOYBEAN OIL, WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, SUGAR, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, SALT, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE), WHEY (FROM MILK), SOY LECITHIN (EMULSIFIER).
Can we say, cancer in a box?
- snack packs with cookies or chips
These offer no nutritional value, and most have high amounts of sugar or sodium or both; skip them and throw in some fresh fruit or veggies or yogurt instead. It will save on your grocery bill too. If your kids like a sweet treat (and who doesn’t?) then make a double batch of homemade cookies and throw the extras in the freezer. They’re the perfect treat to pop into a lunch box on a busy school morning.
- Pop Tarts
Do I REALLY need to add that one?
- fruit snacks and Fruit Roll-Ups
I have avoided buying these for years. My dentist always warns that they are the single most cause of cavities in children. It’s just one more junky food product masquerading as good for you. There is little to no fruit in them.
Take a look at the ingredients:
Pears From Concentrate, Corn Syrup, Dried Corn Syrup, Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Acetylated Mono and Diglycerides, Pectin, Malic Acid, Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), Natural Flavor, Color (Yellow 5&6, Red 40, Blue 1).
And we wonder why kids can’t concentrate.
- pudding, jello, etc. Blech!
- juice boxes
Again, these have no nutritional value, and it’s just adding onto your grocery bill. Send milk or water. They’ll survive. I promise. And yes, not all juice is created equal. Some kinds are better than others, but it’s still a waste; I’d rather spend my budget and my sugar allotment on something that tastes better, but that’s just me.
- soda (Do I REALLY need to tell you what’s wrong with soda?)
Disclaimer: My kids DO get an occasional soda; they are not totally deprived. But I do not believe soda is appropriate for a school lunch. EVER. Sometimes when we order pizza for Friday night dinner, I’ll pick up a 2-liter bottle of root beer. They think they’ve died and gone to heaven. It can be an occasional treat, but not a regular part of a nutritious diet. Incidentally, since I stopped drinking soda, my dental health has improved ten-fold. I had 30 cavities filled (no lie; I asked them to print out my history because I was curious) between the ages of 27 and 35. I haven’t had one since.
*Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you. I don’t mean to imply that organic is the end all, be all, but it’s a good place to start, especially when buying from a larger store. (When you buy from a farm, it’s not necessary because you can talk to the farmer about his practices.)
** Yes, I realize that peanut butter isn’t really THAT good for you, but it’s not a battle I’m willing to fight. I try to feed them enough good foods for other meals that the PB&J for lunch isn’t gonna make and break the quality of their health.
Now it’s your turn! What would you add to my list? What do you pack? What do you avoid at all costs? How often do you allow your kids to “buy lunch” at school?