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6 Tips for Packing Grade "A" Lunches

School starts soon and many parents will be packing lunches. Here are some tips to help you pack a healthy lunch they will eat.

Eating in the school cafeteria is always a good choice, but there are days when your child does not prefer what is on the menu. For those days here are some tips to help you pack a healthy lunch they will eat.

1. Learn what your child will eat.

  • Take your child to the grocery store with you and involve them in the selection of foods for the lunch box.
  • Encourage your child to choose nutritious foods, but keep in mind that you may have to compromise a little. For example, let them have a package of their favorite chips or cookies, but add some nutritious foods along with it.
  • A lunch box full of high calorie, low nutritious foods does not provide the energy and nutrients they need to stay focused. They will soon feel sluggish or may be “wired up” for the afternoon. It can make learning a challenge.

2. Brainstorm and develop a list of lunches you and your child can agree upon.

Look through recipe books or browse the Internet for kid-oriented recipes. Experiment together at home by making the recipe before you send them off to school with something they may or may not like.

More is more. Try packing small amounts of a variety of foods. Great stuffers for the lunchbox include:

  • Vegetable sticks with a small container of low-fat salad dressing for dipping
  • Fresh fruit
  • Pretzels
  • Celery sticks filled with cream cheese or peanut butter
  •  Fruit yogurt or pudding (be sure to pack a plastic spoon)
  • Crackers – plain or with peanut butter or cheese
  • Cheese sticks
  • Graham crackers
  • Dried fruit or fruit leathers
  • Nuts (Check with your school first before sending nuts or peanut butter or any other potential allergy foods. Even though your child may not have a food allergy, there may be children with severe food allergies who cannot handle the smell or cannot be around foods they are allergic to.)
  • Tortilla chips and a small container of salsa
  • Small bags of popped popcorn

3. Pack at least two to three extra choices for your child.

If they are not eaten at lunch, they may be eaten during break time or at recess. In order to serve everyone a meal, schools stagger lunch periods. Your child may be eating lunch at 10:45 in the morning or as late as 12:45 in the afternoon. A mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack might be welcome.

4. Let your child help prepare the lunch.

Involve your children in helping to prepare lunch for the next day. Children can usually peel carrots, bag chips or crackers, spread peanut butter, and wash lettuce. It’s a fact that children are more likely to eat something they help prepare, plus it provides some quality time for you and your child to share together.

5. Keep foods safe.

When packing lunches, keep in mind that when the lunch is packed at 6:30 in the morning it may not be eaten until 11:00 or later. Lunch box food is just like any other food, it needs to stay at the proper temperature until it is eaten. This means it should not be left at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Use freezer gel packs and pack perishable items that need to stay cold around them. Or better yet, freeze individual bottles of water or juice and pack them around the perishable items. By lunchtime or after school on the bus trip home, they will have a refreshing drink.

Hot foods are also a concern. Pack soups or other hot foods in a thermos. Read the manufacturer’s instructions for proper packing. Most require the thermos to be filled with hot water before packing to warm-up the container.

6. Go beyond peanut butter and jelly.

Even though peanut butter and jelly ranks as one of the top all-time favorite sandwiches, it can sometimes get boring. Think variety when packing lunches. Add banana or apple slices to a peanut butter sandwich to “jazz” it up. Switch from peanut butter to other types of sandwiches or lunch foods. Chicken nuggets are a favorite among children and make great lunchbox foods.

Read books about healthy eating together. Some of my favorites are: “If You Give a Moose a Muffin”, “Eating the Alphabet from A to Z”, “Oliver’s Milkshake”, “Bread and Jam for Frances”, “No More Junk Food”, and “I Will Never Ever Eat a Tomato”. Most of these books, plus many more, are available at our local library.

Lunches don’t have to be a hassle. Just keep in mind variety and nutrition, plus packing tips for keeping food safe. For more information on packing lunches or lunch recipes, contact me at the Howard County Extension Office located on the second floor of the courthouse. You can also reach me at 870-845-7517 or by e-mail at

Recipe of the Week

This recipe was shared by Mae L., a member of the Show Stoppers 4-H and Teen Leaders 4-H Clubs. Mae won 2nd place in the Dairy Foods contest with this recipe. It is delicious and makes a great appetizer for back-to-school parties.

Cheddar Bacon Ranch Pinwheels

  • 2 (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
  • ½ c. cooked bacon, crumbled
  • ½ tsp. parsley, chopped
  • ½ tsp. dill, chopped
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ tsp. onion powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 10 (8-in.) flour tortillas

Add all ingredients except tortillas to a large bowl. Beat on low with mixer until creamy. Spread about 3 tablespoons on each tortilla evenly. Tightly roll tortillas and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. When ready to serve, cut off ends and into 3/4-in. slices. Yield: about 7 dozen.

By Jean Ince
County Extension Agent - Staff Chair
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture