For many parents packing healthy lunches is right up there with homework… a necessary yet frustrating part of the school year. Whether it’s a picky eater, a food allergy or just the stress of finding something new, every parent struggles with the age old question of what to pack. In anticipation of the school year we spoke with Stephanie Uscategui, RDN, LDN, a Clinical Dietitian at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. From diluting the juice to balancing a long day, Uscategui gave us a look inside the perfect (or as close to perfect as we can get…) lunchbox.
- It’s all about balance. According to Uscategui, parents should balance the lunchbox just as they would a meal at home. “You want to make sure all the food groups are included,” she says. “So protein, dairy, fruits and vegetables and a whole grain.” If you can’t get it all in via the lunch box, Uscategui says it’s perfectly fine to fill in the holes with an afternoon snack such as pita pockets with tuna or chicken salad and half a banana or yogurt and fruit.
- Think creatively. Though she stresses to always make sure to take advice from a credible source, Uscategui praises sites such as Pinterest and Instagram for giving parents new ideas on food presentation. Some of her own tricks? Wraps filled with turkey, egg salad or tuna cut into small rolls (“Kids want something easy to grab,” she says.); lettuce wraps packaged with nicely separated fillings; veggie noodles with tomato sauce; and using cookie cutters to cut fruit into fun shapes.
- Go for the long haul. Though Uscategui recommends that kids eat every three-to-four hours, she acknowledges that that’s not always possible with staggered school lunch schedules. So when packing for younger students who may eat an earlier lunch “always make sure there’s a protein,”she says. She also advises cutting back on the starchy foods (“Carbs digest very quickly…”) and adding in a bit of good fat such as an avocado or a salad dressing dip for veggies to help keep them full longer.
- Recruit help. Uscategui suggests involving kids in meal prep as much as possible, even when it comes to packing lunches. “Nutrition is so important,” she says. “Healthy eating has to be a priority.” To that end she says it can even start the night before, as leftovers make a great option for the next day’s lunch. Uscategui is keen on the varied options now available for storing foods in the lunchbox and says heating up leftovers in the morning and packing them in a sealed thermos will keep it at a good temperature for lunchtime.
- Add in some fun. Uscategui says even though a piece of fruit is always the best dessert, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for cookies… as long as it’s part of the bigger picture. “You have to be balanced… variety is key,” she says. The same goes for beverages. Though she categorically recommends water as the first and best option, she says diluting no more than 4 oz of juice with water can work for kids who aren’t as keen to go cold turkey on the Capri-Sun.