Finding time for healthy kid lunches
September 27th, 2010
11:30 AM ET
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Editor's note: all week, CNN Newsroom, Rick's List and Eatocracy are teaming up to take a look the effects our dining choices have on our minds, bodies and wallets. Tune into CNN Newsroom daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. ET for on-air coverage and join in the discussion here on Eatocracy. ALL COVERAGE

Michael Milhaven is a producer at American Morning

It seems like yesterday I was on the beach, planning my 4th of July. Now, it’s officially fall and pretty soon I’m going to have to be finding convenient excuses for why I haven’t raked the lawn.

This also means that the kids have been back to school for a few weeks now and the reality is just beginning to sink in: that means at least nine more months of school lunches.

It’s bad enough you have to pry your sleep-deprived cherubs out of bed, feed them a healthy breakfast, get them dressed, help with that last-minute homework assignment they “forgot” and get them out the door to school on time. But crammed in to that chaos you also have to find time to make them a healthy lunch?!


Who has the time? No wonder many parents just give their kids some cash and let them enjoy the same hot dogs and tater tots that we enjoyed when we were in school.

But as much as we hate to admit it, it’s cheaper and better for them to head to school armed with a wholesome home-made lunch. And it doesn’t have to be the standard brown-bag issue PB&J on white bread. It is possible for kids to get fun and interesting lunches - that they’ll actually eat!

School lunch that is good for the wallet AND the kids

It’s also possible to do this for them without breaking the bank or going crazy. Here are some tips based on my own trial and error as well as the advice of other friends with kids:

1. Get the kids involved
Remember, you are making their lunch. So, yes, while it should be healthy, and easy to make, and not too expensive, in the end if they don’t like it, they aren't gonna eat it. Your hard work will be for nothing.

Before you start constructing that beautiful broccoli, feta soufflé you saw in that frou-frou food magazine, ask the young ones they want for lunch. What do they love to eat? And what do they absolutely never want to see again? Their answers may surprise you. And it will also help keep your hard work from ending up on the trading bloc for some other kids Twinkie, or worse, in the cafeteria garbage.

2. Get organized and plan ahead
I’m sorry, but even Julia Child would have been hard-pressed to whip up a decent lunch for a kid to take to school if she had to do it at 6:30 in the morning, on five hours sleep, with nothing more than Ritz crackers and grape jelly.

Once you get a sense of what kinds of food your kids are interested in, you’ve got to plan ahead. This means mapping out what you’re going to make each day and doing the appropriate shopping each week to make sure you have those ingredients. And most importantly, if at all possible make it the night before.

I know, I know, the last thing you want to do after a long day at work, and then making dinner, and then helping with that other last-minute homework assignment they “forgot” and getting them to bed is to then have to make their lunch. But wouldn’t you rather get that out of the way at night and know you can sleep an extra 15 minutes in the morning? I know I would!

Top Chef's Tom Colicchio talks school lunch reform

3. Don’t underestimate leftovers
There’s a reason why cold pizza is so popular. Leftovers are much more appealing than a PB&J. [Editor's note: some would beg to differ.] So, why not make a little extra dinner and use that for lunch the next day? You’d be surprised at the power of the leftover.

Pasta dishes, stews and soups can be repurposed. Buy an insulated container like a Thermos and you’re golden. Some foods even work well cold. How about some left-over ravioli, pierogies, or even pizza? One word of warning: you can only go to the well so many times. Don’t push it and try to serve the same leftover for more than two days straight.

4. Different textures and flavors
Variety is the spice of life - and it’s also the key to a good lunch. Make sure there’s a good balance of flavors and textures - chewy and crunchy, sweet and salty. Pudding or apple sauce play well with carrots or pita chips.

Most kids like to graze. If you give them a couple of different options, chances are they’ll eat something rather than just tossing the whole thing in the aforementioned cafeteria garbage.

No free lunches for school kids, say some

5. Don’t get stuck in a rut; shake things up!
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. You ask your kid what they want for lunch. They say their favorite food in the whole wide world is spaghetti and meatballs. So, like a good parent you diligently prepare spaghetti and meatballs for them every day for lunch.

Well, guess what? It’ll take about two weeks before your kid would rather eat the bag their lunch comes in than eat another strand of spaghetti or force down another meatball. Change it up! Get an idea of at least two or three different things your kid will like to eat, then rotate through them. That way it won’t be as easy for them to get sick of their lunch and not eat it.

6. Be a food detective
When your child comes home from school, ask questions and review the evidence.

– Did they like what they had for lunch?

– Was there something about it they didn’t like?

– Would they rather have something else next time?

Don’t be hurt. Take their responses as constructive criticism and respond accordingly. Also, take a look at the physical evidence. Is that apple you put in their lunch on Monday, still there on Thursday? Chances are they’re not interested in apples. Try something else.

7. It’s okay to go with the ol’ reliable - sometimes
Don’t feel bad if you sometimes have to make a quick PB&J or slap some bologna and mayo on white bread. You’re not a bad parent. In fact, variety is important. If your kid is never sure just what they’re going to get when they open their lunch, it’ll keep things interesting for them. Just don’t rely on the old standbys for too long.

One more thing: stay away from the bananas. Bananas do not transport well to school and they leave a very striking smell, lingering on everything. If you want to give your kid fruit, go for an apple. If they don’t eat it, at least they can leave it for the teacher.

Previously – Read what Chef Tom Colicchio had to say about school lunch reform and the rest of Eatocracy's school lunch coverage.

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Filed under: Eatocracy Week • Kids • School Lunch

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