What’s in Your Lunchbox?

Packing school lunches has changed quite a bit over the recent decades. An acceptable lunch from the ‘70s — a ham and cheese sandwich on supermarket white bread, a bag of chips, a soda and a candy bar — has morphed into a challenge for today’s parents who want to give their children a healthy school lunch that will leave them satisfied, energized and most importantly, happy. Throw in the goal of using less paper and plastic disposable products, and working moms and dads are left feeling overwhelmed. With just a little time spent brainstorming, shopping and prepping, today’s parents can quickly and efficiently create nutritious eco-friendly lunches that will be the envy of the lunch table!

Get Your Child’s Input

Take a few minutes to sit down with your child and talk about school lunches. Even though you prepare meals for them every day, ask your child what they’d like in their lunch bag. The answer may surprise you. Negotiations may be needed to reach a middle ground of something you can pack that will meet your nutrition goals, but their input will result in a more positive response to even the healthier food choices. This can be accomplished even with picky eaters if you spend the time.

However, this might not be the easiest solution for parents with multiple school-aged children. Customizing three or four different lunches is not ideal. So in this case, ask for their lunch inputs in order to try to establish a common denominator among them.

Paige Rienzo, a Kensington, MD author, decorator and mom of four shared her philosophy on this: “Making lunches is much easier when all four of my kids eat the same thing. They agree on almost nothing except the main — they all like pasta. I invested in good thermoses, and I often boil pasta before school. It’s no more time-consuming than it is to make four different sandwiches. If I am feeling particularly motivated, I will add cooked peas or diced meats.”

Consider the Lunch Setting/Time Frame

When new to a school, find out in advance the lunch setting and time frame. In order to extend academic time or recess time, some elementary schools have reduced the amount of time students have for lunch. If this is the case, lunches that require assembly or the opening and closing of multiple containers may prove to be difficult for younger students. Inquire whether students are permitted to access a microwave to warm leftovers, pasta dishes or soup. While convenient, this may also add to a problem with timing.

Think Outside of the “Bag”

When shopping for suitable lunch bags and containers, think outside of the “bag.” Try out these two alternatives:

Thermos. A wide-mouth thermos will enable you to pack pasta, casserole leftovers or soups. Caren Garayta, a Montgomery County Public School teacher and mom of six says of her oldest, “A thermos that could keep food warm was his best friend. He loved having dinner for lunch! With his Cuban-American roots, he loved having rice, of course. But anytime I made a soup or his favorite Asian noodles, it was so easy to heat up in the morning and pop in the thermos.  I also didn’t have to pack as much because the food was so filling.”

But a thermos isn’t just for hot foods. You can also pre-chill the thermos by filling it with ice water while you blend up a smoothie to pack. Frederick teacher and mom of two Maria Shumaker knows that smoothies are the way to more sneak in greens. “One thing I’ve done to get them to eat more greens is by throwing spinach or kale into the blender when making smoothies. They don’t taste the greens at all.” Pack a few deli meat and cheese roll-ups along with the smoothie for added protein. Use the pre-chilled thermos to pack a cold pasta salad tossed with leftover diced chicken and fresh veggies.

Bento Box-Style Containers. This type of container allows for packing smaller portions of a variety of items, sure to please even the pickiest of eaters. Cut-up deli meats and cheese, veggies ready for dipping, fresh fruit and crackers or pita wedges all in their separate compartments will be more appetizing — and fun — to dive into. Some of these containers also come with a section that can be sealed for packing hummus, ranch dip or salad dressing. Annapolis teacher and mother of three Heather Sowells admits, “Use dips as a means to encourage healthy foods. Pack some light ranch if it will get them to eat carrots.” For creative packing containers, Grace Lovelace recommends Kelly Lester’s website and products, Easy Lunchboxes, easylunchboxes.com. Sign up for a free newsletter for lunch ideas or watch her videos. Grace also recommends Laura Fuentes’s website MOMables for more ideas.

Purchase Healthy Snacks in Bulk

For healthy snacks that everyone agrees on, purchase in bulk, if possible. Once home, sort and store them in small bins or baskets in the pantry or, if possible, a cabinet or drawer dedicated to school lunches. For a more economical method of buying snacks, purchase a large “party-size” bag of mini-pretzels or popcorn and re-package in single-serving sized baggies or reusable containers. Having grab and go containers with approved snacks makes it easy for even younger children to help pack their own lunches.

Variety is Key

The saying that variety is the spice of life is key here. Kensington mom of four Maria Welsh said, “I will tell you that my thoughts on lunch is variety. I never packed the same thing two days in a row for the kids. I remember Rob [her husband] saying how he hated his lunch because his mother always made a bologna sandwich: two pieces of bread, one slice of bologna, and then maybe an apple … so my kids looked forward to seeing what was in their lunch every day. Some were hits and some were fails, but they definitely let me know that when they came home.” Maria continued, “I also always tried to have a ‘meal’ with protein, always a piece of fruit, and then a small treat. If they got a bag of chips, then they didn’t get a sweet dessert-type treat or vice versa.”

Packing healthy and nutritious school lunches can be manageable even for the busiest of parents. To make unpacking an appetizing and appealing lunch at school really special, slip in a little note to brighten your child’s day!


School Lunch Q&A

While moms and dads are on the front lines of packing school lunches, chefs and nutritionists can approach this daily task from a different point of view informed by their professional experiences. We asked three food experts to weigh in on the topic:

Q. What is your philosophy for packing school lunches? Do you focus on health and nutrition, or something that your child will actually eat? Is it possible to achieve both?

Chef Lee: “Lunches should be fun and delicious. If it isn’t delicious, it doesn’t matter how healthy it is, your child won’t eat it anyway.”

Chef Tang: “It has to be easy to whip up but still able to provide nutrition that he needs with a good balance. It is possible to achieve both, it is just that parents need to spend a little more time exploring different foods with your kid and showing them that food can be fun.”

Dr. Kantor: “The key to a perfect school lunch is balance and it also has to appeal to your child.  Children truly eat with their eyes and if it does not look good, then they probably will not eat it. Try to include protein, healthy fats, and color with a fruit or veggie in each meal.”

Q. How much does your child participate in the packing of school lunches? Choice? Variety? Actual packing for themselves?

Chef Lee: “I try to get her involved as much as possible.  If she feels like she ‘chose’ her lunch, she is more likely to eat it.”

Chef Tang: “I think involving the kid from grocery shopping at supermarkets or farmers markets to preparing the food helps educate them and makes them more aware of what they are eating and this generates interest to try new or different foods.”

Dr. Kantor: “If your child is actually involved with the planning process they will feel like they “own” the lunch and will be less likely to throw away things that they do not want.  Teachers and cafeteria staff report that fruits and vegetables end up in the trash in most school cafeterias.”

Q. Should kids have a dessert-type addition to their lunch, such as a pudding pack or candy? What about chips? Soda?

Chef Lee: “No chips, no soda, no candy but I always pack a dessert, maybe a chocolate covered pretzel or a bran cookie with chocolate chips.  Dessert can be sweet but some of them also have ingredients other than just sugar.  Whole wheat cookies are a good option.”

Chef Tang: “I think kids should have a dessert type addition to their lunch! I have a sweet tooth and most meals will need to end with dessert. We try to limit his sugar intake. It takes a conscious effort but after a while we realize that we ourselves are also cutting down on our sugar intake.  I think chips are fine if eaten not every day and we don’t drink sodas so that’s not really a problem right now.”

Dr. Kantor: “When you are packing the lunch, keep balance in mind. Limit processed grains and empty calories like cookies, crackers, and juice.  If they like dessert, then pack a piece of dark chocolate.  Removing items that are high in sugar like juice and cookies will increase their ability to focus in classes after their lunch period.  It has been reported that over 12 million American children are medicated for Attention Deficient Disorder (ADD).  Sugar and excessive carbohydrates magnify symptoms of ADD in children, healthy fats like nuts, and oils help reduce symptoms of ADD. Always pack water over juice.  Packing a large water bottle is the best thing you could send with your child every day.”

Q. What is your child’s FAVORITE thing to find in their school lunch?

Chef Lee: “Hot dog with ketchup on the side.”

Chef Tang: “His favorite thing to find is a banana.”

Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a freelance writer and middle school language arts teacher who tries most days to pack herself a healthy lunch to take to school. Follow her @michardillo on Twitter or Goodreads, or on her website at www.michelleardillo.com.


Chef Edward Lee, culinary director for Succotash in National Harbor, MD and Penn Quarter, D.C., and father of five-year-old Arden Rose.

Chef Nicholas Tang, executive chef of DBGB in D.C. and father of three-year old Elijah and five-month old Micah.

Dr. Keith Kantor, a leading nutritionist and CEO of the Nutritional Addiction Mitigation Eating and Drinking (NAMED) program.


Lunches should be fun and delicious. If it isn’t delicious, it doesn’t matter how healthy it is, your child won’t eat it anyway.



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