Back to School Bag Lunch Basics

Whether the cafeteria-bound container is festooned with Hello Kitty, Justin Bieber or the Atlanta Falcons’ logo – what’s inside matters to child nutrition experts.

The new USDA MyPlate nutrition icon indicates one half of a healthy plate should be filled with fruit and vegetables, with the two other quarters occupied by a lean protein and a whole grain starch. To complete the meal, on the side of MyPlate is a cup of milk.

This same food philosophy can be used to fill a lunch box. How do you get beyond the usual carrots and celery stick solution?

Liz Weiss, dietitian and co-author of No Whine With Dinner suggests mixing in chickpeas and blanched broccoli florets to pasta salads and add variety to veggie snack offerings, “Cucumber wheels, red or orange bell pepper strips, sugar snap peas or snow pea pods. Add some Ranch or other dressing like hummus for dipping because the oil in these dips actually helps kids absorb more nutrients from the veggies.”

What about the teens and ‘tweens easily distracted by the lunchtime social hour? That table of ‘gossip girls’ busy checking out the handsome new boy don’t want to be seen gobbling a big sandwich like a hungry ranch hand. The new breed of whole grain sandwich or bagel ‘thins’ might be a better fit with 100 calories and 5 grams of fiber. For something sweet yet figure-friendly they may prefer to daintily dip grapes, strawberries or pineapple chunks into protein-packed Greek yogurt.

Food Safety Patrol

Thrown in a locker, stuffed in a backpack or stashed under a desk for several hours, sandwiches and other lunch foods can linger in the bacteria-friendly room temperature “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees for too long.

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin found that 95% of packed lunches in a recent study were at an unsafe temperature. That’s why insulated lunch bags and boxes -- many with a space to add an ice pack -- get an “A” from food safety experts.

Dietitian Jo-Ann Heslin author of the nutrition counter series for Pocket Books suggests you start thinking ‘cool’ the night before, “If you pack lunch in the morning, chill the lunchbox in the refrigerator overnight. If you pack lunch at night, put the food in the lunchbox and refrigerate both overnight. This helps keep all foods cooler longer.”

A thermos can keep hot soups hot, but it can keep salads cool, too, so they’re still crisp and cold at lunchtime.

Note: Perishable foods can sit in the danger zone for up to 2 hours before the lunch becomes risky.

Something Extra

Since fast food restaurants succeed in attracting attention to their childrens’ menus with toys and prizes, perhaps two can play at this game. Nissenberg suggests, “Don't forget to add a character napkin for fun or maybe an inspiring note or fun message. It will bring along a smile during lunch.”