Pack a safe and healthy school lunch

September 13, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

When children take their lunch to school, make good nutrition a priority and involve them in planning the meal. Their choices will make it less likely foods will be traded, go in the garbage or come home uneaten. As a rule of thumb, make sure lunches include at least three of five food groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPyramid program online at

If packing a lunch, also think about food safety and storage. Is there a refrigerator in which lunch can be stored, or will it be in a classroom or locker? Is your child's class scheduled for early or late lunch? Will there be an opportunity for students to buy milk or other perishable foods to supplement a packed lunch?

Packing different lunches keeps kids from getting bored with lunch and helps ensure they get the variety of foods needed for a nutritious diet.

Vary sandwich breads. Whole-grain breads, kaiser rolls, hamburger buns or bagels are good alternatives to plain white bread. Use cookie cutters to cut sandwich bread into different shapes. Wrap a salad or lean meat and cheese in a tortilla. Roll a tortilla spread with hummus and grated carrots or refried beans mixed with cheese. Instead of traditional sliced bread for sandwiches, use submarine rolls. Stuff miniature pita pockets with sandwich fillings.


Serve salads instead of sandwiches. Toss leftover pasta with veggies and dressing. Serve salad in a bag with shredded cheese and lowfat dressing.

Pair vegetables, grains and protein-rich foods. Pack cut, fresh vegetables, cheese cubes and whole-grain crackers. Avoid packaged cheese and crackers or similar treats, as they are generally high in fat and calories. Check the labels.

Serve leftovers. Cold spaghetti, chicken pieces, baked ziti or other casseroles and pizza slices all taste great served cold.

Send soup or chili in a thermos. Add a small bag of shredded cheese to sprinkle on top.

Send yogurt. Purchase a drinkable yogurt or yogurt in a tube, and send it along with a muffin and fruit. Pack a carton of yogurt with low-fat granola and fruit to mix in. Make a yogurt smoothie and pack in a thermos along with a banana and graham crackers.

Include at least one fruit and vegetable in a packed lunch. Include fruits and vegetables your child enjoys. Fresh produce is always a good choice, but also consider small pop-top cans of pineapple, peaches and other fruits. Avoid juice drinks or punch with a lot of added sugar. Look for 100-percent fruit juice on labels.

When you are preparing packed lunches, be certain to wash hands, counters and utensils. Water and soap are the best food safety tools. Clean hands and counters go a long way toward preventing illness. Also, wash fruits and vegetables before packing them into a lunch.

For safety's sake, make sure cold items stay cold and hot foods stay hot until the time your child eats lunch. If lunch is packed at 7:30 a.m. and lunchtime is at noon, the lunch could sit at room temperature for longer than the recommended two hours. To reduce the risk:

· Use an insulated lunchbox and include a frozen gel pack to keep the contents cool.

· Pack a frozen juice box with the lunch. It will thaw by the time lunch arrives and will keep other items cool.

· Cold-cut sandwiches can be frozen overnight and should thaw by lunchtime. Wrap tomatoes and lettuce for a sandwich separately so the bread doesn't get soggy.

· If lunches are made the night before, keep them in the refrigerator until it's time to pack up and go.

· If hot soups or other foods are sent for lunch, they must be kept hot - not lukewarm. Preheating an insulated container with hot water before putting the food into it will help keep the food hot throughout the morning.

Shop smart - read labels before buying commercially prepared lunch and snack items. Some convenience foods are very high in sodium, fat and simple sugars, making them less than ideal choices for growing kids. Ready-to-eat items such as applesauce, fruit cocktail, fresh fruits, baby carrots, yogurt and shelf-stable puddings are better choices.

Check and replace water bottles. You see them everywhere - hanging off of backpacks, on desks, being refilled at the water fountain. But what kind of care do water bottles need?

Water bottles that are designed for reuse should be washed frequently with hot soapy water. Make sure the cap is cleaned by running hot soapy water through it and rinsing with hot water. To sanitize the bottle, use five drops of regular bleach in a full bottle of hot water. Drain and allow bottle to air-dry, and you are ready to go for the next day.

Commercially filled water bottles are designed for single use and are not recommended for repeated use. The narrow neck and mouth make these bottles difficult to clean.

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

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