Have you thought about what you’ll be packing in your child’s lunch box this year? Here are five tips for packing a safe and healthy lunch for yourself, or for a child starting a new school year.
1. Choose a good lunch box or bag
Soft insulated lunch bags or boxes are the best choice for keeping lunches cold. Metal or plastic lunch boxes without insulation don’t perform as well, but they keep lunches cold better than paper lunch bags. If you do use paper lunch bags, double bag to create an extra layer of insulation to protect the food inside. Remember to wash insulated lunch totes and lunch boxes with hot soapy water after each use.
2. Plan ahead
To avoid the morning rush, prepare the food the night before and store in the refrigerator. Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold. For best quality, don’t freeze sandwiches containing mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes. Pack these to add later.
3. Keep foods at safe temperature
School lunches are often stored in classrooms, and the air temperature of most classrooms puts lunches in the temperature danger zone. Bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in temperatures between 40 ºF and 140 ºF, so make sure that foods stay out of this zone before lunchtime hits. Small frozen gel packs work well to keep foods cold, or freeze juice boxes or small bottled water and pack in your bag or lunch box.
Even pre-packed combos containing luncheon meats, cheese, crackers and condiments must be kept cold. This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham which are cured or contain preservatives.
Some foods that don’t require refrigeration and are great to include in a bag lunch are fruits, vegetables, jerky, hard cheese, unopened canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.
4. Pack a nutritious lunch
Include a variety of foods, but watch added fats, sugars, and sodium. Look for added sugar in beverages like fruit drinks, punches, and ades. These often contain little or no fruit juice and are loaded with corn syrup or other sugars. Fruit drinks and punches can contain as much as 12 teaspoons of sugar for a 12-ounce serving. That’s more than the 9 teaspoons found in most soft drinks. Instead choose fruit juices that are 100% juice. Vegetable juices can be a good choice, but they are often high in sodium.
Use only small amounts of high-fat foods, such as butter, margarine, mayonnaise, sour cream or fatty meats. Instead, include foods with dietary fiber, like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, and crackers.
5. Involve your child
Finally, involve your child in food shopping and in preparing their lunches. Regardless of their age, they have an idea of what they want in their lunch box. Choose and prepare foods that are appropriate for your child’s age. For example, slices of fresh apple or pear are ideal for a younger child, while whole fruit is fine for older children. Pack cookies or cupcakes that supply vitamins or minerals, like oatmeal-applesauce cookies, fig bars and pumpkin cupcakes.