School is Back, So What to Pack?

by | Sep 1, 2021 | Health

Now that we finally have kids back in school and pre-school, the age-old problem of what to pack for lunch and snacks has surfaced. How do I pack things they will eat but that are also nutritious? This is a problem facing most parents because our desire to assure proper nutrition is often sabotaged by our little darlings who are going through the “picky eater” stage. Many of the ideas we see online or in magazines are cute, but often time-consuming or expensive. For some helpful ideas that are practical and inexpensive,  I reached out to working parents, Trent and Brittany Caldwell. Brittany works full time and is also a mother to a four-year-old, and 9-month-old twins….time management is critical! Trent works full time and is in the strength and nutrition field, so definitely has some strong opinions about what we are feeding kids today, and how important it is to start them off right.

Brittany was helpful in sharing some ideas she has put to use. With kids so busy with after-school activities, having healthy foods ready as “on the go” is helpful. Brittany keeps carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, apple slices (with or without peanut butter) beef jerky, blueberries, and bananas handy. Placing these in a plastic lunch box or container ($1 at Dollar Tree) before picking up the kids, gives an opportunity for immediate healthy snacks while on the way to soccer or dance! Brittany shared, “If you have the time to be more creative, letting kids make their own trail mix works well. If they make it themselves, they are more likely to eat it.” To make trail mix, parents can buy dried fruits, pretzels, nuts (if allowed for age and allergies), and dark chocolate morsels which can be mixed together and placed in plastic bags for a snack on the run.

Another fun snack is “make your own” frozen yogurt dots. Parents can buy a big tub of yogurt and spoon it into a zip-lock bag. Cut a hole in one corner of the bag and squeeze the yogurt onto to baking sheet to make dots about the size of a quarter. Put this tray of dots in the freezer for 3-4 hours and you can remove the frozen yogurt dots to a bag and keep them in the freezer for a yummy and low sugar snack! This is especially good for hot weather treats.

A challenge that many parents find with time management is planning ahead, but if you can ever accomplish it, you will reap the benefits. Creating an environment that allows for choices helps your child develop good eating habits and also overcomes some of the picky eater issues. A great idea is to have small plastic bins in the refrigerator at eye level for your child and have them labeled: FRUIT, VEGGIE, DAIRY, PROTEIN. (see picture) Then you can prepare snacks of each category and put serving size amounts in each bin in plastic bags with the label indicating the number of servings the child may have. This “pick your own snack” method teaches great life skills of nutrition. Fruit choices might include strawberries (already cleaned and ready to eat), apple slices, blueberries, or other fruits in season. The key is to have them ready to eat, so a hungry and impatient child gets immediate gratification. Ideas for veggies are carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and cherry tomatoes. Dairy could include a variety of cheese sticks, and yogurt cups or tubes. Protein might include hard-boiled eggs, turkey pepperoni, or beef jerky. Again, having these items prepared and ready for your little one to grab is the key!

Many of these same items can be used in lunch boxes and kept cold using an ice pack. Dollar Tree has lunch boxes with a net inside the lid to hold the ice pack and you can get the “soccer” ice packs for $1. You can also find a great variety of reusable plastic containers for the lunch box, (amazingly inexpensive) and can pack a healthy lunch with lots of options based on what your kid likes and will eat. Using containers with their favorite cartoon character might also make lunchtime fun for them. If you use the reusable plastic containers, allowing your child to take responsibility for emptying the lunch box after school and washing their containers instills a sense of ownership for the child. Getting them to help select items for the next day’s lunch also helps teach good nutrition skills and responsibility. Lunchables came out when I had school-age children, and were an easy grab, but highly processed and not necessarily always the best nutrition because they usually lacked fresh fruits and vegetables, which are essential to the nutrition of a growing child.

So what about sweets? Try to find alternatives to processed sugars. Candy, cookies, and cakes are usually empty calories for children and do not provide good nutrition. As an alternative, consider getting your child involved and help you make “apple doughnuts.” To make these, cut an apple into slices crosswise to form round pieces, then cut out the core. This will make a ring, which is the base for the doughnut. Let your child decorate the doughnuts using Nutella, peanut butter, or yogurt as icing, then applying sprinkles, dark chocolate chips, nuts, or granola as decoration. These will be fun to make and provide a nutritious dessert.

One complaint I often hear from parents of young children is that the kid is so “picky” and it is impossible to get them to eat the meal you prepare for the family. One option you can try is to not fight it, but allow the child to build their own “charcuterie board” for their place at the table, using meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables. Brittany says that a favorite “go-to” for her four-year-old is homemade quesadillas, using soft tortillas, lean ground beef, rice, and cheese. These are quick to make and can be served with a side of carrot sticks or cucumbers to get a well-rounded meal!

Making food choices easy and fun, and preparing ahead seem to be key ingredients to assuring healthy snacks and lunches for your child. It doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. Good luck parents and caregivers as we head into another school year! Lunches have sure come a long way since we were in school and we are giving our children wonderful skills for good nutrition that will serve them well throughout life.

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About The Author

Dari Caldwell

I was born and raised on the northern end of Kannapolis, NC and after college (UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University) I lived away from North Carolina for 12 years, during which I earned a doctorate in Health Care Administration. My career has been in healthcare for over 40 years and in addition to being a Registered Nurse, I have held healthcare executive positions in Los Angeles, California, New York, Concord, Charlotte, and finally completed my career as President of Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, where I retired in 2020. I live in and love Rowan County and have enjoyed immersing myself in the community on various volunteer boards such as Rowan Cabarrus Community College, Rowan Chamber of Commerce, Rowan Economic Development, Novant Hospice Advisory, Healthy Rowan, and am now Board Chair for the Rowan Board of Health. In retirement, my husband David and I have enjoyed our hobby of vegetable gardening, and visiting our children. We have two sons – Trent, who is the head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Lenoir Rhyne and is married to Brittany. They have 3 children including brand new twins! Our younger son Chris lives in Shreveport, Louisiana where he is an orthopedic surgery resident physician. We love sports, and also enjoy time at the lake, the beach, and with my 93 year old very spry mother!