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Domenica Catelli

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The Healthy Lunchbox

Posted: 09/20/11 01:28 PM ET

It's that time again for many of us -- not just back-to-school season, but back-to-school-lunch drama! If you are like millions of parents, you struggle with what to put in your child's lunchbox that is healthy but won't be thrown away, is inexpensive yet nutritious and is easy to make but is not fast food. Though I am a chef, I humbly had to learn that my daughter was throwing away her sandwiches at lunchtime when she was in kindergarten -- and as a busy mom, I had to come up with easy, healthy, delicious solutions. What I share today is a combination of past favorites to be re-discovered and new, healthier organic snack foods that can be quickly added to round out lunch on-the-go.

I have been sharing simple lunchbox tips with parents for more than a decade. And the first thing I want to tell you is if something healthy is working in your child's lunchbox -- don't fix it. For example, if your child likes the same type of sandwich, keep preparing that sandwich and simply switch out the healthy sides. Don't get caught up in the pressure to be "that mom" -- you know, the one who has gourmet-looking items perfectly wrapped and the child never has the same meal twice. If your child loves peanut butter and jelly, that's fine, just make sure you are making the healthiest version. This means that the peanut butter is organic, has no added sugars or corn syrup and no hydrogenated oils, while the jelly or jam has as few ingredients and lowest sugar possible. And, as always, beware the bread...

All breads are not created equal, and some have a surprising amount of sugar. Make sure you read the ingredients and keep it simple. Avoid bread with ingredients like bleached flour, hydrogenated oils or corn syrup. If you can introduce sprouted grains early this will become the "normal" bread for your child -- I like Ezekiel 4:9 Whole Grain Bread. If you have begun with soft white bread, the grainier brown bread will be a harder sell. Don't give up though, get whole sprouted grain bagels or bread, toast them, and add peanut butter, hummus or cream cheese. The crunchy effect of toasting the breads will help when transitioning your child to a new style of bread.

Time-Saving Tips for the Lunchbox:

Leftovers are your friend -- just heat up last night's soup, pasta or chili and put it in a Thermos. Soup can be a fantastic nutrient-dense lunch. Chicken and veggies with barley or beans will give your child a balanced meal in one cup. Or, try something non-traditional for lunch in the Thermos like oatmeal, adding raisins, nuts, cinnamon, etc.

To save time in the morning, prepare a week's worth of sandwiches on Sunday evening. This will save you time throughout the week while preserving the tasty goodness of ingredients, because sandwiches freeze perfectly and thaw in time for lunch. Just remember to hold the lettuce and tomato until you're ready to pack your lunchbox in the morning, since these foods don't freeze well.

Be prepared. Cut up fruit and veggies and store in the fridge to be ready to throw into a baggie or reusable container (kids can always help with this and pre-pack the night before). Apples tend to get brown, so give them a quick squeeze of lemon after you slice them up. If time-saving is more important than cost savings, utilize the pre-cut fruits and veggies from the grocery store. Many stores even have single-serving carrots and dip, celery and peanut butter, or cantaloupe and pineapple. If you can take a few minutes to chop up and store the produce yourself, you will save a few extra bucks.

Get the kids involved. Have the kids participate in a routine of packing all dry snacks the night before and leaving them on the counter or in the lunchbox. They can also pack their napkin and any utensils they will need.

Other delicious and nutritious lunch tips:

  • Make sure you pack something "alive"-- a variety of crunchy veggies like carrots, cucumbers and celery are all great choices. Pack fruits like apples, oranges or frozen organic berries (which will be thawed out by lunch and still cold). Or for a sweeter option, try a mini-parfait with 1/4 cup Bear Naked Peak Energy Trail Mix, 1/2 cup low-fat flavored yogurt or kefir and 1/2 cup fresh berries or sliced apples.


  • Ditch the candy bars and try a Kashi TLC Peanutty Dark Chocolate Layered Granola Bar. This particular bar is a parent's dream. It looks decadent yet is only 130 calories with 7 grams of sugar and made with all natural ingredients, whole grains and real fruit spread -- unlike unhealthy chocolate candy bars, filled with artificial ingredients and up to 30 grams of sugar.

  • Forget the sodas and make your own healthy fizzy drink. A simple recipe is a 1/2 cup sparkling water with one cup of juice, add a mint sprig, lime slice or a couple of fresh berries. You can control the sugar content and add a dimension of flavor (with the mint or using a variety of juices like apricot, mango, or lychee juice) that will help with picky eating later in life.

By implementing even one of these tips, you will feel better about preparing your child's lunchbox and you will be providing your child with healthier options for their developing bodies and minds.