Agri Leader

Easy tips to pack a healthy school lunch

The long days of summer are nearing and soon the school bell will ring again. No doubt parents are purchasing school clothes and supplies; however, one more consideration they have is what to pack in a school lunch.

Healthy lunches lead to healthier children, and studies have shown that food preferences, which are often acquired during childhood, along with eating habits, which are often acquired after adolescence, are more resistant to change once set in.

Therefore, it’s important to ingrain early on the idea of incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods into a daily diet.

Many of these choices can include the all-time favorite foods that children like.

“Kids generally love sandwiches,” said Justin Patrick Timineri, executive chef and culinary ambassador, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Timineri explained it is important to start with good nutritive ingredients.

“I suggest using whole grain bread, low-fat mayonnaise and low-sodium lunch meat, and avoiding food items that are high in fat, sugar and sodium,” said Timineri who explained that lunchmeat generally has a lot of sodium.

Lunchtime is a great time to incorporate healthy foods that parents wouldn’t necessarily think children would like.

As children are enjoying their lunches with their fellow classmates, they might just be in the mood to sample something new, like hummus.

“Hummus makes a great sandwich, especially with the addition of fresh vegetables like cucumbers and carrots,” said Timineri.

For another delicious combination, peanut butter and fruit is also works well, that is if nut allergies are not a concern.

In addition to a sandwich, parents should also serve a side of fresh fruit, vegetables or a salad.

These tasty sides can be purchased fresh from a local farmer’s market or stand. Having the children select the foods makes them more inviting to eat. Children are more likely to eat something they helped grow in a garden, or something they selected at the market.

“Low-fat yogurt is a great item to include in a lunch,” said Timineri. Low-fat yogurt can be served as a side dish or used for healthy dip for fruits or vegetables.

It can also be stirred with dried fruits, such as raisins or cranberries, for added taste and nutrition. Granola, or whole grain cereal, could also be stirred in.

And let’s not forget leftovers. According to estimates from the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 40 percent of purchased food goes uneaten in the U.S.

“Using leftovers are a great way to cut down on food costs,” said Timineri.

Many leftovers, such as chicken slices and cheese, turkey and honey mustard, and even banana and granola, can be rolled into a whole wheat wrap.

“The bottom line is to get creative and have fun making lunch items for your children,” said Timineri.

To save more money, parents can buy reusable plastic containers with separate compartments. They can then be filled with a variety of healthy foods such as sliced turkey, chopped apples, cheese cubes and carrot sticks.

One compartment could also be used for dipping salsa, guacamole or pesto—all good healthy choices. All told, this is more economical, and healthier, than the prepackaged versions.

While it’s important to keep the lunch boxes healthy, it’s also important to keep them cold. “Keeping food cold is a very important aspect of food safety,” said Timineri, who explained that using frozen gel packs and an insulated lunch container, can keep food at the proper temperature of 40 degrees for several hours. When it comes to school lunches, remember the “ Fresh from Florida” label can help make the grade. These products are all grown in Florida, so not only are they fresher, they help our local economy.