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The Lunch Box Dilemma!

Has the “lunchbox packing dilemma” already started at your house?

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – By the time this article is printed, most of the kids in Garland County will have experienced their first day of school.  While many students will be eating prepared cafeteria lunches, lots of them still prefer to carry their own lunches to school.  Has the “lunchbox packing dilemma” already started at your house?  Questions begin to form in your mind such as “What will we pack in the lunch today?” or “How can I be sure the lunch I pack will be safe, healthy, and enough to carry my child through the rest of the school day?”  Have you thought about what you will be packing in those lunch boxes day after day for a whole school year?  Perhaps the following tips for packing a safe and healthy lunch for a child, or for yourself, will help alleviate some of the chaos that comes with getting ready for school each morning.  

     The first step in packing a lunch is to choose a good lunch box or bag.  Those that are soft and insulated are the best choice for keeping lunches cold.  Metal or plastic lunch boxes without insulation do not perform as well, but they keep lunches cold better than paper lunch bags.  If you do use paper lunch bags, double bag to create an extra layer of insulation to protect the food inside.  Remember to wash insulated lunch totes and lunch boxes with hot soapy water after each use.

     Another important step is to plan ahead.  Avoid the morning rush by preparing food the night before and storing it in the refrigerator.  Freezing sandwiches will also help them stay cold during the school day but, for best quality, do not freeze sandwiches that contain mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes.  Pack these to add later.

     It is imperative to keep foods at a safe temperature.  School lunches are often stored in classrooms, and the air temperature of most classrooms puts lunches in the temperature danger zone.  Bacteria will grow and multiply rapidly in temperatures between 40 ºF and 140 ºF, so make sure that foods stay out of this zone before lunchtime hits.  Small frozen gel packs work well to keep foods cold.  Frozen juice boxes or small frozen bottled water can also be packed in the bag or lunch box. 

     Pre-packaged combos containing luncheon meats, cheese, crackers and condiments still need to stay cold.  This includes luncheon meats and smoked ham—even though they may be cured or contain preservatives.  Some foods that don’t require refrigeration and are great to include in a bag lunch are fruits, vegetables, jerky, hard cheese, unopened canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles.

     Aim to pack a nutritious lunch.  Include a variety of foods, but watch for added fats, sugars, and sodium.  Look at the added sugar in beverages like fruit drinks, punches, and sport drinks.  They often contain little or no fruit juice and are loaded with corn syrup or other sugars.  Fruit drinks and punches can contain as much as twelve teaspoons of sugar for a 12-ounce serving.  More than nine teaspoons of sugar are in most soft drinks.  Instead, choose fruit juices that are 100% juice.  Vegetable juices can be a good choice, but they are often high in sodium.  Use only small amounts of high-fat foods, such as butter, margarine, mayonnaise, sour cream or fatty meats. Instead, include foods with dietary fiber like fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, and crackers. 

     Finally, involve your child in food shopping and in preparing their lunches.  Regardless of their age, they have an idea of what they want in their lunch box.  Choose and prepare foods that are appropriate for your child’s age.  For example, slices of fresh apple or pear are ideal for a younger child, while whole fruit is fine for older children.  Pack cookies or cupcakes that supply vitamins or minerals, like oatmeal-applesauce cookies, fig bars, and pumpkin cupcakes.

     Don’t let packing the lunch be such a chore at your house.  With some pre-planning, smart shopping, and a little help from your kids, you can make packing lunches more enjoyable while taking advantage of the time to connect with them. 

By Linda Bates
County Extension Agent - 4-H
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Media Contact: Linda Bates
County Extension Agent - 4-H
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
236 Woodbine Hot Springs AR 71901
(501) 623-6841

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