Family Forum: How to Escape the School-Lunch Slump

Tips and tricks for packing healthier school lunches that your kids will eat and enjoy.

Do your kids dump out half of what you packed for lunch when they get home from school? Are you packing the same PB&J or turkey sandwich every day? Is it a challenge to find healthy, affordable food choices to pack for lunch that your kids will actually eat and enjoy?

Every parent hits a packed-lunch slump at some point. Part of the problem is what we send a packed lunch to school in. Most of us use a soft-sided lunch bag, subjecting the sandwich, fruit and other items we pack to being squashed and becoming very unappealing by the time lunch rolls around.

Nutritionist and Bastyr University faculty member Cynthia Lair is author of "Feeding the Whole Family." She is also the co-producer and host of the popular online cooking show Cookus Interruptus, which shows viewers how to cook family-pleasing meals from organic ingredients, despite life's interruptions.

Lair recommends bento box-style containers, including Laptop Lunches, as a better school lunch transport system. Metal, glass or plastic bento-style containers allow you to offer many more options for lunch including dinner leftovers, steamed veggies, pasta, noodles or rice. Smaller containers are perfect for kid-friendly dipping sauces, such as hummus or barbecue sauce.

Laptop Lunches consist of a soft-sided case with sturdy, dishwasher safe containers (top rack only) that fit together inside, just like a bento box. The containers are available at in Redmond and are free of lead, BPA, and PVC. The system will pay for itself over time as you’ll eliminate the need for plastic sandwich bags and you can offer a much greater range of food for lunch. There is a free menu library on the company's website with a year’s worth of fun lunch ideas including “breakfast for lunch,” “easy pizza bento” and “gluten-free goodness.”

Lair said parents should aim to add a new food to our child’s menu every week so they “don’t end up as sixth graders who’ll only eat mac and cheese.” She reminds parents that it takes up to 15 "exposures” before a child will accept a new food.  Letting your child pick out the fruit and veggies that will go into their meals, including lunch, is a good way to motivate them to eat them.

Ideally, Lair said, school lunches should include “protein, which kids need to grow, a complex carbohydrate and a fruit and veggies to provide energy.” Parents should limit sugar but worry less about fat, which is actually needed for brain development in kids. 

Moms Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring are co-founders of Santa Cruz-based Obentec, the maker of Laptop Lunches. Hemmert was inspired to create the system from her four years of living in Japan before she had her kids, now teenagers.

When it comes to school lunches, Hemmert said parents need to mindful of their family's long-term nutrition goals.

“When our kids are little we think we have all the time in the world to teach them about healthy food choices but we really don’t,” Hemmert said. She said parents should get kids involved early in making lunches and let them “ramp up” as they get older. Preschool-age kids can start by pulling a step stool up to the sink and filling their water bottle.

Hemmert recommends families pack lunches up at night, adding anything that could not do well overnight in the fridge, such as crackers, at the last minute in the morning. Insist kids pack both a serving of fruit and veggies, but let the child pick which ones. You can also make veggies and fruit more appealing by changing up the presentation.

“Carrots can be packed steamed one day, cut into different shapes the next day or tossed in with pasta or soup,” Hemmert said. Letting kids be part of the process will help ensure that they actually eat the lunch and enjoy it, she said.

If you know you need to pack healthy, kid-appealing lunches but are feeling overwhelmed, you might check out . Sammamish-based MiniBento offers healthy and delicious pre-packed lunches and was founded by two Eastside moms, Karolina Janczuk and Ela Cwalina.

MiniBento lunch ingredients are often locally grown and organic, the packaging is biodegradable, and the choices are truly kid pleasing. MiniBento lunches cost around $6 per lunch and menu options include pasta with fruit, veggies and cheese, and Italian-style wraps with crackers, meat, veggies and fruit.

Cwalina and Janczuk recommend getting kids involved early in the process of making meals and packing lunches so the whole family learns while they are doing it. Children “eat with their eyes,” Cwalina said, so it helps to offer food choices in a rainbow of colors, which will also help ensure they are getting proper nutrition.

Janczuk recommends parents escape the white sandwich bread rut by using whole grain breads, pita, bagels or little whole grain buns for sandwiches. Cwalina suggests using cookie and sandwich cutters to make sandwiches more appealing.

Janczuk believes it is important that parents make the extra effort to teach their kids healthy eating habits.

“We make sure our kids learn to do math and read and write well," she said. "Teaching them healthy eating habits is equally important and will also serve them for life.” 

Minibento is currently available to order at several private schools on the Eastside including and  and for camps at the . Janczuk and Cwalina hope to offer Minibento at public schools in the future as well.


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