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Necessary Components of a Healthy School Lunch Box

Updated on August 14, 2013

The Tin Lunch Box Era

Remember these cartoon and comic book lunch boxes with the handles?
Remember these cartoon and comic book lunch boxes with the handles?

How School Lunch Programs Have Changed

Do you remember when cafeterias were non-existent within school programs? My first memory of eating in some type of cafeteria was the elementary school gym. We would line up in the hall, proceed to the gymnasium by classroom and sit on the bleachers to eat our lunch.

Prior to that wonderful experience when good balance was a must in keeping food on your lap, if you lived close, you could run home during lunch hour. Fortunately I lived within walking distance, and I recall eating quick meals such as a bowl of soup or a sandwich, and then heading back to school. It was comforting to see mom in the middle of the day, and the walk was rejuvenating.

Today we have school cafeterias serving a wide variety of food options; hot and cold meals, quick sandwiches, salads, vegetarian, food bars, and vending machines, to name a few. Going home for lunch is not a choice: you will lose half the students in the process; and the lunch hour is now twenty to thirty minutes, leaving little time to step out for a quick bite.

However, children still have the option to take their lunch to school, in spite of modern conveniences. Albeit a few schools have banned students bringing lunch from home due to not meeting nutritional needs, it is still popular across the nation. If the lunch box meal meets all the nutritional requirements for a healthy diet and is packed to keep food from spoiling, a lunch from home can provide much comfort to a child and encourages good eating habits.

Packing An Eco-Friendly Lunch Box

National School Lunch Program

The National School Lunch Act (NSLP) was created in 1946 and served over seven million children the first year. The number increased to 22 million in 1970, and jumped to 27 million in 1980. Today more than 224 billion children have participated in the program. The cost of the program was around 11 billion in 2011. The average program cost of a school lunch is $2.86 (free student lunch).

The program is available to pubic or nonprofit private high school grades or under, and private residential child care centers. Participating schools or institutions receive cash subsidies and USDA Foods for each meal they serve meeting federal requirements. Additionally, they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children.

This school year (2012-2013), the NSLP guidelines increased the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains in the menu and set calorie limits applicable to grades K-12. Sodium content reductions are a gradual decrease within the next ten years. (source: fns.usda/gov/cnd)

The program sets good standards for serving children quality lunches meeting USDA nutritional guidelines. I have heard that some schools check lunch boxes as a measure of safety and precaution in meeting the USDA standards. Parents who pack school lunches for children should be aware of the standards to ensure their child has a healthful and pleasant lunch experience.

School Lunch Poll

What was your favorite lunch box item when you were in school?

See results

The Importance Of Eating A Healthy Lunch

Eating a healthy lunch at school is important for children. Without proper nutrition, children will lose energy to function in classroom activities. Additionally, hungry tummies tend to growl and may cause embarrassing moments for the child.

Food fuels the brain with much needed vitamins, minerals and micro-nutrients necessary for concentration. When a child exhibits lack of energy or poor concentration, it may be a sign of hunger or poor nutrition. For example, a lack of vitamin B12 may cause impaired cognitive function due to neurological or nerve fiber complications. The vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables provide much needed antioxidants through micro-nutrients. They are also cancer preventatives.

A healthy lunch will include protein, grain, fruit, and vegetable in appropriate serving sizes. Food should be provided in a variety of color and textures, and ideally should be seasonal choices, organic and locally grown for the best nutritional value.

The following is a general guideline on serving size for school-aged children:

  • Protein: 3 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish; 1 ounce nuts, 2 tablespoons peanut butter, 1 cup beans
  • Fruit: Small fruit, 1/2 cup fruit, 1 cup cut-up fruit
  • Vegetable: 1 cup raw, cooked, or leafy green vegetable
  • Fats: 1 teaspoon butter or margarine, 2 tablespoons salad dressing

Source: fi.edu/learn/brain/diet.html


How Food Fuels Your Brain

Image created by Teaches12345, 2012.
Image created by Teaches12345, 2012.

School Lunch Box and Container Options

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Plastic containers are covenient and come with different serving options: take-out, lunchables, collapsible.This style simulates a lap-top (blue item pictured) and is popular with the "tech-savvy" kid. A reusable, freezeable thermos keeps food cold and prevents spoilage. Eco-friendly packaging, such as resusable sandwich and snack baggies save money, are dishwasher safe, and good for the environment. Thermos styles vary, allow your child to help choose one they like.  This will make lunch enjoyable. These pink snack containers (on top shelf) are cute, but may take up space in the bag. These purse-like lunch bags are popular with older elementary girls. Branded entertainment styles are creative and offer versatile packing compartments. I found this lunch bag style reminiscent of the "tin box" era.
Plastic containers are covenient and come with different serving options: take-out, lunchables, collapsible.
Plastic containers are covenient and come with different serving options: take-out, lunchables, collapsible.
This style simulates a lap-top (blue item pictured) and is popular with the "tech-savvy" kid.
This style simulates a lap-top (blue item pictured) and is popular with the "tech-savvy" kid.
A reusable, freezeable thermos keeps food cold and prevents spoilage.
A reusable, freezeable thermos keeps food cold and prevents spoilage.
Eco-friendly packaging, such as resusable sandwich and snack baggies save money, are dishwasher safe, and good for the environment.
Eco-friendly packaging, such as resusable sandwich and snack baggies save money, are dishwasher safe, and good for the environment.
Thermos styles vary, allow your child to help choose one they like.  This will make lunch enjoyable.
Thermos styles vary, allow your child to help choose one they like. This will make lunch enjoyable.
These pink snack containers (on top shelf) are cute, but may take up space in the bag.
These pink snack containers (on top shelf) are cute, but may take up space in the bag.
These purse-like lunch bags are popular with older elementary girls.
These purse-like lunch bags are popular with older elementary girls.
Branded entertainment styles are creative and offer versatile packing compartments.
Branded entertainment styles are creative and offer versatile packing compartments.
I found this lunch bag style reminiscent of the "tin box" era.
I found this lunch bag style reminiscent of the "tin box" era.

Lunch Boxes And Containers

Reflecting upon my elementary school days, I remember the plain, brown, paper bag was the norm for packing a lunch. Lunch meal options were usually a PBJ sandwich, fruit, and when available, a treat such as a cookie. Yes, I will admit that sometimes a candy bar was stuck in for added pleasure.

If your child's school allows lunch from home, and your child prefers to take his or her own lunch, there are a variety of options in lunch box styles and food containers. The best lunch box styles will hold several small containers, have easy-open zippers, and insulated to hold food temperature hot or cold as needed. Use ice packs as an aid in keeping foods cold, and a thermos maintains hot soups and beverages over a few hours.

Due to the concern for BPA chemicals in products, plastic baggies and containers (unless BPA free) should be avoided in packing and wrapping food items. BPA is an organic chemical compound having hormone-like properties that are a concern as suitability for packaging of food products.

Good Properties Of A Lunch Box and Container

As you can see by the adjacent photos, the types of lunch boxes and containers available on the market are varied. I was amazed at the choices! I was intrigued by the purse-styled lunch totes and lunchskins baggies. They certainly have come a long way from the old, tin lunch box I carried!

Here are some pointers in purchasing lunch box (or lunch bag) container items:

  • Divided compartments are helpful in keeping food separate.
  • Reusable and recyclable containers are cost effective, usually are dishwasher safe, and hold different food shapes and sizes well.
  • Make sure they are durable and have a tight seal around the edges.
  • Check for the BPA label. It is healthier for your child's food items.

Fun Lunch Box Ideas

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Kids Packing Their Own Lunch

On Saturdays, my husband's mom would make him egg salad sandwiches for the whole week, freeze them, and put one out on the counter the night before for his lunch box. He ate a lot of egg salad in those days; and frankly, I'm surprised that he still enjoys one now and then. However, my mother-in-law's thinking ahead, enabled him to pack a good lunch and kept him energized for the day.

Depending upon the child, packing a school lunch can be taught at an early age. Some children can put together a healthy lunch at age six while others may be ready at ten. If a child demonstrates maturity and responsibility, then a parent can set basic guidelines regarding nutritional content and packaging of food and allow her to pack her own lunch box.

If a child is young, pre-packaging food or setting it out the night before may help him to make choices meeting the nutritional standards of a healthy lunch. Older children can put together a simple wrap or pita sandwich with little problem. Going through the steps with your child before allowing him to navigate on his own will give both you and him confidence.

Today food allergies are concerning for many families. Talk with your child's teacher and those that will have lunch supervision on how best to help your child remember safe eating habits. Sharing lunch is not an option for these special kids, and it is important that other children realize the safety needed to ensure everyone has a good time together. Your child should also know how to follow safe food consumption and the signs that may indicate an allergic reaction. Seconds count in preventing a serious, life-threatening incident.

Lastly, some parents make a visual poster as a guideline in packing lunch. Children can easily view what foods make healthful lunch options. I suggest that parents check the contents of the lunch box with the smaller children just as a precaution. You can use this time to sneak in a note to your child, don't lose that communication opportunity!

Lunch Box Food Ideas

Main Food Item
Vegatable
Fruit
Dessert
Pita: Turkey, Chicken, Falafel
Carrot Sticks, Baby carrots
Grapes
Cookie
Wrap: Turkey, Chicken, Veggie
Cucumber with dip or nut butter
Apple: whole or slices
Brownie
Panini: Ham, Turkey
Broccoli with dip or nut butter
Orange: whole or segments
Peanut Butter Crackers
Burrito: Beef, chicken or bean
Celery sticks with cream cheese or nut butter
Bananas: whole, or halved
Trail Mix
Egg on English Muffin
Tomato wedges or grape tomatoes
Raisins
Muffin
Peanut Butter and Jelly
Zucchini Sticks with hummus
Fruit salad
 
Quesadillas: cheese, chicken, turkey
Edamame with dipping sauce, hummus
Melon cubes, watermelon slices
 

Packing A School Lunch Box

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A lunch box or lunch bag should be flexible to allow room for several food items.  Large zippers and netted compartments are an easy open for children.Water is the best choice as a beverage, followed by skim or low-fat milk.  Allow plenty of room for small containers, utensils, and a beverage. Children can learn to pack healthy lunches if given proper instruction and guidelines.  Whole grain, natural, organic foods are best in a school lunch.
A lunch box or lunch bag should be flexible to allow room for several food items.  Large zippers and netted compartments are an easy open for children.
A lunch box or lunch bag should be flexible to allow room for several food items. Large zippers and netted compartments are an easy open for children.
Water is the best choice as a beverage, followed by skim or low-fat milk.
Water is the best choice as a beverage, followed by skim or low-fat milk.
Allow plenty of room for small containers, utensils, and a beverage.
Allow plenty of room for small containers, utensils, and a beverage.
Children can learn to pack healthy lunches if given proper instruction and guidelines.
Children can learn to pack healthy lunches if given proper instruction and guidelines.
Whole grain, natural, organic foods are best in a school lunch.
Whole grain, natural, organic foods are best in a school lunch.
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