By law, Texas schools have at least 180 days of instruction. For parents, that means 180 lunches to plan for, whether by buying them at school or bringing from home. Sometimes it can seem more like 1,800 lunches to pack, when inspiration runs dry, mornings get hectic and yet another peanut butter sandwich goes in the lunch box.
Packing lunches for school can get easier as kids get older, since they can take on more of the prep themselves, but it’s usually up to the adults to stock the pantry and fridge with the building blocks of a healthy lunch. Making a batch of healthy lunch box fillers liked baked egg rolls, fruit bars or protein-packed muffins can go a long way towards having a balanced meal at lunchtime.
To plan a satisfying lunch, first start by figuring out how much food is needed. A typical 6 year old needs about 1,500 calories per day, while an active sports-playing teen will need twice as much. Food that isn’t eaten doesn’t help meet that caloric need, so it’s important to make sure that lunch items have enough appeal to actually be eaten rather than be replaced, calorically, with junk food.
One strategy for making appealing lunches is to start with something familiar, like pizza, and then add nutritious ingredients. Quinoa pizza muffins accomplish this by combining protein-intense quinoa and cheese, and vegetables with the taste of pizza. With a small container of marinara sauce for dipping, they’re a lunch box mainstay that doesn’t need reheating. Even better, since they’re made by the dozen, there are plenty to freeze for future lunches.
Boosting the nutritional value also works for the perennial lunch box favorite of Rice Krispie treats. Adding plenty of dried fruit, whether cranberries, raisins, blueberries, strawberries or a mix, keeps them from being just a sugar bomb but rather a source of some fiber and vitamins.
Egg rolls are also an easy way to sneak vegetables into school lunches. A batch of egg rolls, once baked, also freezes well for prepare for busy mornings when there isn’t much time for packing lunch.
The freezer can also hold juice boxes or refillable water bottles that will serve the dual purpose of keeping food at a safe temperature while providing a drink with the meal. Perishable lunch foods such as many sandwich fillings, yogurt or egg products, should only be left at room temperature for two hours. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school cafeteria lunch programs, lunches kept in the classroom or locker can quickly get into the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees, and a frozen juice box or bottle can delay getting into that zone.
Elementary-age children are particularly susceptible to food-borne bacteria, and if freezing a drink doesn’t appeal to them, the USDA also suggests freezing a wet sponge in a zip bag to serve as both an ice pack and a post-meal wipe.