If there's a fight in the school lunchroom this year, it's not because food is flying over heads.
There's the debate over federal regulations and what should and shouldn't be fed to children to prevent obesity and foster healthy eating. There are schools setting up a la carte options in the cafeteria line offering young eaters the chance to choose what they want for lunch. (Not always a good idea.) And there are schools opting out of following some healthy guidelines to save money.
It can give any parent a headache.
Dietitian Jenni Grover of the Mother Nature Network (mnn.com) and parenting expert Jennifer Chung of kinsights.com advise that the best option is to be old-fashioned: Pack a lunch. But pack a healthy lunch.
"Eating lunch at school is not just about satiating hunger -- it helps kids learn and is an important part of their nutrition intake for the day," says Grover, co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners, which specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition.
Chung said carb-heavy school lunches are expensive and don't promote healthy food choices.
"... A well-balanced, home-packed lunch is one of the best ways to have a say in what your children are eating," said Grover. "It means you can ensure that they get a lunch that includes lots of fruits and veggies, a protein, and a whole grain -- and it also means that you can choose local, unprocessed and/or organic ingredients wherever possible."
That doesn't mean it has to be expensive or time consuming, said Chung, who is co-founder of Kinsights.come, which is part parenting community, part online health record.
The key to success is having a plan in place. The time-saving tips from Grover and Chung will help you pack healthy lunches that don't break the bank:
Have a plan -- Make a list and stick to it. Shop with the purpose of feeding your family healthy options at home and at school. Spend an afternoon each weekend to cook for the upcoming week. Prepare lunch options ahead of time where possible. Things like egg salad, chicken/turkey salad can be made in advance to avoid hectic mornings.
Leftovers -- Chung: When planning your shopping list, include extra proteins that can be used for lunches during the week. Utilizing meat from dinner the night before can stretch your food budget. Try leftover meatloaf sandwiches or a chicken or turkey salad. Avoid serving lunch meats as they can be pricey, high in salt and low in nutritional value.
Grover: There's no reason to always make lunches from scratch. In fact, leftovers from the night before can often be a great addition to the school lunch box. From pizza slices to pasta, we often plan our evening meals with an eye to their potential for lunch the next day, making a little extra and putting it aside in advance.
Whole foods -- Use as many whole foods as possible. Processed foods tend to be high in sodium and sugar. Provide high protein / low sugar options to help your kids feel full longer and avoid a mid-afternoon sugar low.
Fresh is best -- Shop at local farmer's markets to get the freshest produce possible and incorporate fresh fruits and veggies into your weekly plan. It may take a bit more time, but you'll be purchasing fruits and veggies at the height of freshness with optimal nutrition.
Buy in bulk -- If you live near a warehouse store like Costco or Sam's, buy in bulk. Crackers, nuts, beef jerky, and fruit snacks can be stored in a cool dry place and last for several months. Perishables like fruits, veggies and cheese sticks, can be refrigerated properly to prolong freshness. Fresh fruit and veggie smoothies can be made in advance and stored in the freezer. They taste great and are packed with vitamins. Use reusable snack bags to store nuts, crackers or fruits and veggies. Pack ahead of time in single-serving size pouches so kids can grab and go on the way to school.
Use coupons and shop store brands -- In many cases store brands are less expensive and taste the same. Use bulk bins at the grocery store for nuts and dried fruits.
SANDWICHES -- Grover: I realize that sandwiches are the boring, go-to option for many packed lunches. But there's a lot to be said for them. They are easy to eat, they can be created to include all the important food groups (protein, whole grains, and fruits/veggies), and there's an almost infinite variety of options to choose from. Instead of always making PB&J or cheese and lettuce, consider making a bean, cheese and spinach quesadilla with whole grain tortillas, or a pita pocket with cream cheese and shredded cabbage.
Chung: One of the toughest parts of packing lunches is coming up with creative ideas kids will eat. Try packing these easy healthy lunch alternatives that your kids will love:
Chicken or Turkey Salad Rolls -- Combine diced smoked chicken or turkey, toasted almonds, halved seedless red grapes, diced green apples, thinly sliced celery, mayonnaise and mustard. Store in an airtight container; serve on a whole wheat hot dog bun. Include Wheat Thins and a low sugar beverage.
Turkey-Cheese Pita Pockets -- Spread a low fat softened cheese inside a whole wheat pita, then fill with roasted turkey slices, baby spinach leaves and cucumber slices. Include dried apricots or banana chips and a low sugar beverage.
BLTA Wraps -- Mash an avocado with lemon juice, then spread on a whole wheat wrap. Top with crumbled bacon, chopped tomatoes, and thinly sliced romaine lettuce. Roll up and wrap in parchment or wax paper to secure. Add a piece of fruit and a low sugar beverage.
Easy Italian Hero -- Toss thinly sliced iceberg lettuce with a mixture of yellow mustard and mayonnaise. Assemble a sandwich on a split hoagie roll using sliced provolone, salami, turkey, tomatoes, and the iceberg lettuce mixture. Serve with broccoli and ranch dip and a low sugar beverage.
Peanut Banana Burrito -- Spread peanut butter on a toasted whole-wheat wrap, then sprinkle with crumbled bacon and drizzle with honey. Place a whole banana at the edge of the wrap, then roll, pressing gently to break the banana and form a cylinder shape. Or, slice the banana, scatter, and roll. Include celery and carrot sticks and a low sugar beverage.
Curried Egg Salad Pinwheels -- Combine chopped hard-boiled eggs, raisins, sliced celery, mayonnaise and curry powder. Trim the crust from a slice of bread and press to flatten. Spread with a layer of egg salad, then roll and secure with a toothpick. Include fruit salad and a low sugar beverage.
SOUPS -- Soups are a great, healthy option for a school lunch, particularly on a cold winter's day. From Classic Tomato Soup through Chicken & Noodle to Creamy, Curried Cauliflower Soup, your options are almost limitless. Just cook up a big batch, store individual portions in freezer bags, and then warm them up as needed and send them off in a thermos. Try offering whole wheat toast, or slices of toasted tortillas as a fun dip to go with it.
SALADS-- Grover: I often find that people are surprised when I suggest salad as a great kids' food, but that says more about the quality of most salads than it does about kids' tastes. My kids usually love salad in their lunch boxes; I just make sure to include a yummy mixture of different veggies and fruits and good dose of dressing. It doesn't have to be complicated either. For a while in the fall, my 4-year-old was obsessed with slices of cucumber with a little lemon juice squeezed over them -- a dish she pretty much devised herself after tasting a cucumber that had been sliced with a knife previously used for lemons!
Jennifer Chung is a parenting expert and co-founder of Kinsights: part parenting community, part online health record. Kinsights provides parents with a safe place to seek answers to their questions while also helping them track their child's health information. Organize your child's growth and developmental milestones, immunizations, medications, allergies, and more. Connect with Kinsights at Kinsights.com to learn more and sign up. You also can follow them on Facebook/kinsights and Twitter (kinsights).
Jenni Grover, MS RD LDN, is a registered dietitian and co-founder of Realistic Nutrition Partners in Durham, N.C., realisticnutritionpartners.com. She specializes in child, maternal and prenatal nutrition, with a focus on whole foods.