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Packing Kids' Lunches

Make sure your kids' lunches aren't returned to sender.

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When putting together kids' lunches, nutrition and kid appeal are probably the most obvious concerns moms have. And they are definitely important, but successful school lunches (the kind that doesn’t come home uneaten) take a few more considerations. Think about these  things as you pack your child's lunchbox.

Nutrition Vs. Kid Appeal

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A nutritionally sound lunch means a balance of healthy proteins, carbs, fruits and vegetables along with a small treat. You want to avoid anything with empty calories or caffeine, so kids don’t come down from a sugar high during their afternoon classes. But kids like sweets and may covet the gummies and candies of their classmates.

So how do you pack a nutritious lunch that kids like? Well, this is the million question, and my colleagues at About.com have a lot of specific suggestions, tips and recipes. Generally, though, I would say that you have to respect their individual tastes. I have three kids, and I have learned that means three different lunches--if I don’t want them to boomerang back to me every afternoon. Get kids  involved with the choices, and in fact, teach kids to make their lunches.

Another consideration is the coolness factor. Even if your child loves something a little smelly like tuna or egg salad, he may not want to be seen (or really smelled) eating it at school. So don't pack it.

Time

Kids often have very little time to eat, maybe 10-20 minutes for lunch and less for snack time. Anything that takes time to assemble or peel or that you know your child will dawdle over is not a good choice for a school lunch. If you know your child is a slow eater, be especially mindful of this.

Quantity

Of course, you don't want your children  to be hungry, but if you over pack kids' lunches a lot may go to waste. Children will want to try everything but won't finish anything. And given the tight time frame of school lunch, this could be frustrating for kids. Take note of what comes home. If every day your child brings home half a sandwich, maybe just pack a half.

Mess/Difficult Packaging

This is especially important with the younger grades. Teachers and lunchroom aides have a lot of kids to watch. By the time they get around to opening your child’s fruit cup, lunch may be almost over. But a kindergartener opening a fruit cup without help might end up with it in his lap. The best way to avoid bad food stains on youngsters' school clothes is to not pack staining food (e.g., drinks with dye, spaghetti sauce, mustard). Plus don't forget the napkin!

Snack Time, Lunch, After-School Care

Your child’s lunchbox could contain three different sets of food, and getting him or her to eat the right thing at the right time can be tricky. Kids enjoy freedom from your oversight at school and might choose to eat what they like when they like, despite your instructions.

Some teachers might have rules against eating a sandwich at snack, but others don’t monitor this.  If this is an issue, pack more than one of the same item and be sure there’s enough food to cover all the mealtimes.  For sandwiches, perhaps wrap each half separately.

Drinks

It’s best to pack only spill-proof drinks, especially when kids are small. This can be juice boxes or pouches or water bottles with built-in straws or spill-proof tops. Be sure the lid to any bottle is in good working order. Nothing will ruin a kid’s lunch (and day) faster than a dribbling lunchbox. Also be sure to pack the right number of drinks, taking into account snack time and after-school care and whether milk is available for sale at lunch.

School Rules

Many schools have rules about what kids can pack for lunch--either because of concerns about allergies or about encouraging healthy foods. Know the rules and follow them, (even if you don’t agree) out of respect for your child's teachers and to make your child's life easier. If your child breaks the rules, he or she will have to deal with the consequences, not you. Your child may not be allowed to eat part of the lunch or may have to sit alone.

Utensils/Containers

I like to be environmentally conscious, but I don’t like to have all my metal spoons and plastic containers disappear into the bowels of the lunch room. The best way to combat this is to have the right lunchbox (spoons are never returned in bagged lunches) and to frequently remind children to bring home cutlery and containers. Plus having some cheap extras (e.g., spoons picked up at a yard sale, reusable-but-disposable containers) helps.  Kids may be able to borrow silverware from the lunch room, eliminating the need to pack a spoon.

Food Safety/Microwaving

Don’t take a chance on your child’s lunch spoiling. If in doubt, use a cold pack even in the winter; your child’s lunch could be in the closet next to the furnace. Follow the directions with insulated thermos-type containers to keep hot food hot. Beyond safety issues, food tastes better when it is served at the correct temperature. Also be careful of items that tend to melt (i.e. chocolate) even if they don't spoil.

A few schools may allow children of certain ages to microwave their food, but many don’t have microwaves. Also there could be a line to use the microwave. So it’s better to send leftovers that can be enjoyed cold or are warmed and packed in an insulated container.

Listen and Learn

Parents have very little control over what happens in the school lunch room. An empty lunch box at the end of the day is a good sign, but really your child could be trading away the things you pack, or worse, dumping them in the trash. Ask for feedback and listen to it. You won't always like what you hear because kids are exposed to a lot of food you may not make available in your home. But discussing this, rather than ignoring it, will teach your children why you make the choices you do.

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