Article: Plan ahead and involve the family for school lunch preparation

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Team Family – Mission: LUNCH!

With school back in session, families are trying to re-establish their routines, one of which is packing lunches. As parents, we want to provide a lunch that is enticing enough to actually get eaten, but also provides our kids with the nutrients they need to thrive. This can be a challenge for many families as TV advertisements and supermarket displays for portable, heavily processed foods are everywhere, and overly sweet and/or salty seem to be the norm.  Depending on the number of people in your family, the whole lunch packing experience can be a chore. However, no need to worry! In honor of the families involved in their beloved sports, I have four strategies for working as a team to make delicious and nutritious lunch options come together quickly.
1. Plan ahead – I can’t emphasize this point enough! When you plan ahead, you will save time, money and wasted effort – no running back to the store because you forgot to buy peanut butter this week! Planning also means that you can actually delegate! This is a hard one for many of us, me included! However, when we have a menu plan for the week, we really work as a team. I can ask everyone to do a few of the tasks and our meals come together so much quicker and easier! Take a few minutes on Friday evening to plan lunches for the next week, so that you will be able to do the needed shopping and advanced prep over the weekend and will be ready for Monday morning.
2. Get everyone involved, from beginning to end and cross-train! Everyone should be able to contribute their ideas during your brief lunch planning meeting, take turns going grocery shopping “in teams”, complete advanced preparation and lunch assembly tasks. As the German proverb goes, “Many hands make quick work” – if you have a plan of action. Getting kids involved in meal planning and food preparation helps them learn critical life skills while building their self efficacy. The kids cut carrots and sweet peppers on Sunday afternoon, while I make hummus and my iBars.
3. Figure out the logistics that work best for your family – Would a sandwich-making assembly line in the morning work or are your mornings a bit too rushed? If your team isn’t made up of earlier risers, figure out which items could be put together the night before and refrigerated until morning. Then is it just a matter of adding them to the whole grain pretzels, crackers, ripe cherry tomatoes or bananas set out in the lunch boxes, lined up across the back counter.
4. Aim for a balance of the Fantastic Four: veggies, fruit, whole grains and legumes (plus nuts, if your kids are not allergic).

  • Veggies – go for a variety of colors and textures – If your kids like crunch, you can’t go wrong with carrots and celery. I buy whole carrots and slice them into sticks or coins, as many bags of baby carrots have gone slimy in my fridge. Expand everyone’s “veggie comfort zone” by cutting all different kinds of veggies into sticks: sweet red, orange and yellow peppers, zucchini, cucumber, jicama, and more! Some veggies are already the perfect size for packing – lightly steamed, yet still crunchy, like green beans, sugar snap peas or small pieces of corn on the cob! You can even experiment with fun shapes, using cookie cutters, then use the odd-shaped leftover pieces to toss into a salad or soup or sprinkle onto the filling of a wrap.
  • While fruit is the “original fast food,” if the fruit you send for lunch comes home uneaten, do a bit of investigating.  Ask your child how they would like that fruit prepared so that they would actually eat it. If they have a short lunch period, maybe peeling an orange takes too much time. Are they too far from a sink to wash their sticky fingers and need a toothpick sent with their honeydew melon? Or, perhaps it is simply a preference issue. My kids typically don’t like eating peeled orange segments, as loose teeth make it difficult to wrestle with the skin, but love eating sliced orange rounds cut into quarters, which easily pull away from the peel. Kiwi can be cut in half and wrapped up, then scooped out of it’s peel with a spoon! My kids also love strawberries, watermelon wedges, and chunks of pineapple or cantaloupe.
  • Whole grains – If your family is growing weary of bread (though Dave’s Killer Bread can’t be beat and just showed up again at our local Costco), get creative with whole grain pitas, mini bagels, lavash, and tortillas. Some kids will even prefer a lettuce wrap! (Use dark leaf lettuce, kale or collards to maximize nutrient content.)
  • Legumes & Nuts – We love edamame, which is perfect for lunch boxes, as are small containers packed with bean dip, like hummus or my Cowboy Salad with black beans. Experiment with different nut and seed butters in sandwiches and on whole grain crackers, send a small baggies of their favorite nuts (walnuts, almond, pistachios, peanuts are great options) or incorporate them as part of a homemade trail mix.
  • Don’t forget to refill everyone’s leak-proof water bottles!

When lunch planning and prep is a team effort, everyone has a role and feels significant, (vital for building confidence and work ethic), and everyone gets to enjoy a great lunch, which is a win-win!

Timaree Hagenburger, is a registered dietitian and certified health fitness specialist with a master’s degree in public health. She is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College, conducts corporate wellness work throughout the area and has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV.

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