The Ultimate Guide To Packing A Healthy School Lunch ( Special Guest Article)

Nobody knows school lunches better than our teachers, which is why I am so thrilled to share today’s very special guest article, written by Peel District School Board (PDSB) teacher Liana Walkin, who also happens to be one of my closest friends and a former nutrition student from the University of Guelph.

She shares many of my nutrition values and is the perfect person to be writing today’s article, where she provides insight for parents who  may be packing lunches for the first time EVER this September.

It is an awesome read that I am so thrilled to be releasing today. The timing could not be better. Enjoy!

A Guide For First Time Lunch Packers

By Liana Walkin

With the start of school just around the corner, you may find yourself overwhelmed with your to do list – doubly so if this is your child’s first year of kindergarten. While I can’t solve all of your problems (no, I will not take you back-to-school shopping!), hopefully I can share some tricks of the trade to make packing lunch a little more user friendly.

Are you Nuts?

While many of you know this already, it bears mentioning that many schools highly encourage nut-free lunches. Ensure that you know your school’s policy before sending anything containing nuts in your child’s lunch. When sending things that look potentially nutty, it’s always a good idea to label the product as nut-free, to avoid any confusion later on. Your little chatterbox may love to tell the neighbour, the cashier, and their toy truck all about how much they love chocolate cream cheese, but you’d be surprised how quickly they clam up when their teacher asks, “Is this Nutella?”


All in the Family

Meal times at school can be challenging. Many children are not used to eating in a group setting. As much as you think that the routine of feeding your child before the adults sit down to eat is making your life easier, I promise you it’s not. The best thing you can do to prepare your child for school lunches is to adopt healthy family mealtime behaviours at home. This means eating together as a family while you discuss your day. This way your child will be used to eating in a group, surrounded by distractions, and without intensive one on one attention. Along these lines, I know they will always be YOUR baby, but your child is not a baby anymore. Please do not spoon feed them. My one year old niece is more than capable of feeding herself. So is your child. Children who come to school having never used a fork independently are in for a rude awakening. Save your child this stress by allowing them the freedom to learn this skill in the comfort of their home.


Pro Choice

Lunch is not a science. Your child is constantly changing, growing, expending a variable amount of energy, and if they’re anything like almost every kid I’ve ever met, prone to the odd bout of pickiness. When possible, avoid packing one large item for lunch. Instead, pack several substantial snacks. This allows for choice throughout the day, meaning that your child can adequately learn to regulate their food intake needs – something that is absolutely integral to building healthy habits that will last a lifetime. In addition, many schools have multiple snack times throughout the day. Maybe you’d be fine to eat half of your sandwich now and half later, but you’ve had years of practice and hopefully have this self regulation thing down pat by now. Dealing with a picky eater? The best thing you can do is to send a variety of smaller items. This way if they decide that they hate oranges today (but oranges are their favourite!?), they can eat the strawberries instead. An even more fool proof strategy is to involve your child in the shopping, so that they can tell you what they won’t eat before you buy it. Expect to pack about 20-30% more food than you expect your child to eat in a day, and do not give them a hard time for not finishing it. Again, they will have variable energy needs day to day. And again, they are forming very important habits and learning to self regulate. You do not want to encourage over eating because they’re afraid to get in trouble. On the other hand, most kids of overbearing parents just learn to throw out what they don’t like. If you don’t mind throwing your money in the garbage, nag away.


Be Prepared

I know I’m repeating myself, but I cannot express strongly enough how important it is for your child to have experience feeding themself before they start school. To be blunt, if they can’t do it themself, nobody’s going to do it for them. The kindergarten program strongly emphasizes the importance of self regulation and independence, so it would be directly in contradiction of the program for teachers to feed your child. This also extends to other parts of mealtime such as hand washing, opening lunch bags, and the dreaded opening of containers. Please, please, please spend some time with your child to practise opening (and closing – unless you love sticky backpacks) all containers that you will be sending to school. When buying prepackaged products, keep in mind how easy or hard they will be for your child to open. Whatever cruel person invented the Kool Aid Jammer clearly doesn’t understand motor coordination in young children. It’s also important to note that schools usually don’t provide much more than sinks and tables when it comes to mealtime accoutrements. If your child’s meal requires a fork to eat, pack a fork. If your child’s lunch will be more enjoyable warm, pack it in a thermos. Unfortunately cutlery and microwaves are generally well outside of the budget of most public schools. Your child will be lucky to have access to a reliable supply of paper towel, let alone all that fanciness.


Get Packin’

I could write a whole other article on specific items to pack, so I will keep this brief. A quick Google search on healthy school snacks will provide a ton of creative and fun ideas to entice even the pickiest eater. Some of my favourite lunchtime snacks for kids include cut up fruits and veggies, cheese, hummus, crackers, yogurt tubes, and hard boiled eggs, but really the possibilities are limitless. Make sure you keep your little one in mind, since they will be the one eating the lunches, and wherever possible involve them in the food selection and preparation. And no it’s not cheating to buy packaged pre-portioned items for school lunches, but give the nutrition info a scan before you buy. Some are shockingly devoid of valuable nutrients.


A very special thank you once again to Liana for this awesome and insightful piece!

Until next time,

Andy De Santis RD MPH