To send lunch money or pack for school?

August 17, 2005|by LYNN F. LITTLE

School starts next week. For kids, choosing a lunchbox along with other school supplies might be a big deal. Packing the lunches usually is a bigger deal for parents.

There's also the question of whether or not your child would be better off participating in the school lunch program. School lunch programs are nutritionally balanced and economically priced.

School breakfasts also might be of interest to busy families. Economical breakfast programs can provide a meal that might otherwise be missed and, in doing so, help your child get the day off to a good start.

To help make the school lunch/packed lunch decision, check out the school lunch program and consider the cost and convenience of packing a lunch.


Children can benefit from the variety of foods served, including some that might be unfamiliar. That can be a plus, particularly with exposure to fruits and vegetables.

As your children see others at their table enjoying foods with which they might not be familiar, they will be more likely to try and eat the new foods. Some children, particularly younger ones, might prefer familiar foods from home. If so, be sure to include a variety of foods, and don't pack the same lunch day after day.

Mix it up, but prepare foods that will be easy to eat. Cut sandwiches in halves or fourths; pack vegetable strips or rounds that can be dipped, or other finger foods like apple or orange slices - not a whole fruit. And, don't forget the napkins.

When packing lunches, it is also important to think about food safety and storage. Is there a refrigerator in which the lunch can be stored? Or, will it be in a classroom or locker? Is your child's class scheduled for early or late lunch? And, will there be an opportunity for your child to buy milk or other perishable foods to supplement a packed lunch? If at all possible, lunches should be stored in a cool place, away from direct sunlight, radiators and other heat sources.

Choose shelf-stable foods that are safe without refrigeration, including fresh fruits and vegetables; crackers; peanut butter sandwiches; canned meats; shelf-stable cheeses; packaged pudding; and canned fruits and juices. After opening, canned meats, puddings, fruits and juices need to be refrigerated.

Perishable foods such as luncheon meats, chicken, eggs, turkey and tuna should not be left out at room temperature for more than two hours (or, if the temperature is above 90 degrees, one hour).

Use a lunchbox or carrier that helps keep food safe. An insulated lunchbox or bag can keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Adding a gel pack or frozen juice pack also helps keep cold foods cold. A metal lunchbox will keep food from being crushed but cannot keep food as cold as an insulated lunch box or bag can. Brown paper or plastic bags will not work as well as an insulated lunch box or bag.

Reusable, serving-size containers can save time and money. Prepackaged foods, such as individual portions or juice boxes, add expense but also make packing a lunch easier. Juice boxes can be frozen and used for cooling.

To help keep cold foods cold, use freezer gel packs that can be purchased in supermarkets or kitchen supply stores. Remove the packs from the freezer early in the morning and place them with the cold foods. They should hold cold foods until lunchtime. The gel packs generally cannot hold perishable foods beyond lunchtime. Lunchtime leftovers should be discarded and not saved to take home at the end of the school day.

Want to prepare lunch the night before? Store the packed lunch in the refrigerator. Freezing sandwiches also can help them stay cold. Pack add-ons such as lettuce, tomato or mayonnaise separately and your child can add to his sandwich when it is time to eat.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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