Best Back-to-School Lunches


Pack your kid’s lunchbox with wholesome foods to help her gain health, not weight.

Across the Western world, parents and schools have woken up to the crucial link between the foods a child eats during school hours and his/her health. To control obesity, children are being encouraged to acquire a taste for real foods and to form healthy eating habits. Hopefully, the days of soda and snack machines in school corridors and cafeteria trays loaded with greasy, starchy messes are on their way out.

In the U.S., efforts such as the Farm to School movement integrate food and nutrition education in the  classroom. Through their efforts, more American children eat fresh local foods in school cafeterias, and local farmers benefit too.  Turning to Europe, we see that, according to the WorldWatch Institute, Seventy percent of all school cafeteria food in Rome is now organic, with ingredients coming from 400 Italian organic farms.” France, where at lunch children are routinely served 4-5 courses freshly cooked in the school kitchen, has the lowest rate of childhood obesity in Europe.

And what of those of us who live in the Middle East, where the majority of school children take their lunches to school from home? As a mother living in Israel, I’m sad to report that many kids fill up on soy-based or meat-glued chicken “shnitzels” nuked in the microwave a few minutes before running off to school. (See our post on the perils of soy and meat glue here.) The horrible white bread sandwich with a layer of cocoa-flavored margarine known as “chocolate spread” is still the favorite 10:00 a.m. snack.

The solution? Dedicate time to preparing real food for your precious children.

It means deciding what “quality time” really means to you. Is an hour spent in front of the TV emptying your mind as valuable as an hour cooking ? If you encourage your child or teenager to help out, you might find you’re having fun together. And your child will like being the one to determine what his lunch foods will be. Even cooking alone, the manual labor (and good smells coming from the pot) soothe and relax.

Helpful equipment:

  • A standard thermos for hot cocoa or soup.
  • A food thermos to contain hot foods like stews or drier hot foods like rice and beans, or majadra.
  • 2 frozen packs to keep sliced fresh fruit or vegetables, or salads, fresh. Frozen packs also keep sandwiches with fish or chicken cool.
  • 3 light but sturdy containers with tight lids. They should be microwaveable.
  • TV-dinner style boxes with separated areas inside for different foods.

Nice but not essential:

  • A small insulated carrying bag.
  • An insulated bottle container with a shoulder strap, for home-made iced tea or other cold drink.

Just having those thermoses and packs gives you lunch ideas.

The plan

During the school year, I sit down with my teenage daughter once a month or so and we draw up the food plan in two columns. Column A: something satisfying but portable for breakfast, since that’s food she might snatch up as she’s flying out the door to make her bus. The snack foods for the 10:00 o’clock break are interchangeable with the foods in Column A. Lunch foods go to Column B.

I undertake to cook and pack the the food either the night before or in the mornng. She has to put up with my choices, since she dictated the list.

Rather than suggest menus item by item, here are lists of kinds of foods that you can turn out in your kitchen with just a little effort.

Column A: Breakfast and Mid-Morning Snack

Muffins and quick breads of all kinds. As long as they’re whole-wheat and have chunks of fresh fruit or grated vegetables (zucchini, carrots. For a savory muffin, try cheese, with or without oven-dried tomatoes).

Low-sugar cookies or cupcakes. Add dates or other dried fruit. This allows you to reduce the sugar in the recipe.

A variety of favorite whole-grain breads, sliced or ready to fill as sandwiches (like a half-pita or tortilla).

Breakfast sandwich fillings:  whatever he/she likes to put on bread in the morning.

A slice of leftover pizza (we’re talking about a teenager here). With slices of whatever raw vegetable is in favor at the time.

Sliced fresh fruit. Sliced is key here. A child might ignore an entire apple or bell pepper, but one sliced, arranged, and kept cool in a box always gets eaten up.

Dried fruit and nuts. Mix a few varieties or pack them individually.

Dairy. Natural yogurt with a dollop of maple syrup or your jam, or chopped nuts and raisins. Natural cheese slices wrapped around cucumber sticks.

Let’s not forget healthy drinks. One glass of natural juice . Cold herbal tea, sweetened or not, as you will. How about plain cool water?

Column B: Lunch

Protein foods give energy; starchy foods put kids to sleep.Pack a minimal amount of carb-heavy foods – enough to satisfy but not act as a soporific.

Eggs, hard-boiled and kept cool in a bag with a frozen pack. Or an omelet. Omelets are handy protein vehicles for chopped vegetables, or to use as wraps. Or chopped up and added to pasta salads or brown rice.

Dairy: a container of low-fat cottage cheese (add a spoon). Put some olives or pickles on the side or in a small bag to go with it.

Whole grains, hot in food thermos or cold with dressing, as a salad. Rice and beans, hot. Quinoa tabbuleh, cold. Lentils.

Pasta and other carb-heavy foods: mix with cold or hot vegetables, leftover meat or fish and pack into the appropriate container.

Vegetables.  A mixture of  raw vegetable sticks for dipping into choumous or to eat as is. Your child will decide which vegetables. A whole baked potato. A whole small baked sweet potato (add his favorite topping in a small separate container).  Leftover stir-fry. Vegetable fritters. Mixed salad with 4 colors of vegetables in it.

Soup or stew left over from dinner, re-heated in the morning and stored in a thermos. (In my kosher kitchen there is a dairy thermos and another for chicken soups.)

Leftover meat or poultry, sliced or chopped and packed into a hot/cold container. Again, sliced or pre-chopped is important. Provide a fork, and your kid will eat. Expect him to pick up an entire drumstick and eat it in front of his friends, and he won’t. Meatballs are good.


  • Choose menus for the next week and cook accordingly. At the end of the month, review the lists with your child and let him/her choose to repeat, or omit, or add whatever healthy foods he wants for the next month.
  • Cook ahead. Freeze individual portions at least twice a week.
  • When cooking dinner, keep the next day’s lunch in mind. My daughter doesn’t mind repeating last night’s dinner at lunch, but if she did, I would separate a portion to freeze, thawing it out another day.
  • Every once in a while, dedicate time to making two condiments. Pesto, labneh, jam, chutney, salsa, pickles, salad dressing. Anything your child likes that adds relish to his food. Pesto, by the way, freezes well.
  • Cook and pack  foods your child likes, being mindful of quality ingredients. Is he/she going through a phase of only peanut butter sandwiches? My daughter did, at age 6 – three weeks of only PB sandwiches, with an occasional apple or yogurt to make me happy. I made sure the bread was whole wheat and the PB natural and sugar free. She grew out of it.

Still looking for specific recipes? Try some of these on Green Prophet:

::Worldwatch Institute

Photo of children eating a school lunch by USDAgov via Flickr.

Photo of Turkish lunch box by seelensturm via Flickr.

Miriam also writes a food blog.


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