Bag it or Buy it?

Lunchroom 315

Making sure children eat a healthy lunch at school can be challenging, whether they eat in the cafeteria or pack a lunch from home. The good news is healthy options abound for buying or bagging lunch. The key is teaching yourself and your children about good nutrition first.

“I think you can shape and change a kid’s excitement about (nutrition) if you approach it the right way,” says Sheree Vodicka, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the N.C. Dietetic Association in Raleigh.

Today’s Lunch Line

Thanks to ongoing efforts in the Carolinas to provide healthy food in school cafeterias, children can eat nutritious and varied lunches each day. School cafeteria lines are a great place for students to gain independence, learn how to make healthy choices and learn social interaction, as well as try new foods.

Joan Marsh, dining hall manager at Charlotte County Day School, says that one recent Christmas a parent gave a cafeteria employee $50 cash and said, “Thanks for getting my kid to eat broccoli.”

“If they just take one bite (of a new food), it’s a plus,” Marsh says.

Wake County public schools have introduced new healthy foods, such as kiwi and star fruit, and a California blend of vegetables, to their lunch menus. “There are some unusual things kids might not get at home or in their lunch box,” says Marilyn Moody, nutrition director at Wake County Schools.

This fall, more white breads will be replaced with whole wheat breads and vending machines will only offer downsized snacks with fewer than 200 calories. Many schools in North Carolina are taking similar actions, removing sugary fruit drinks and replacing them with water, 100-percent fruit juice and flavored water, as schools try to help children get smart about nutrition.

The benefit of eating at school is a selection of healthy hot foods on the menu, including cooked vegetables and meats. However, temptations remain. There may be Rice Krispie treats by the cash register or ice cream on the menu for dessert.

You should monitor meal choices and review menus with your student before he or she heads to school each day. “It starts at home,” says Marsh. “You have to go over the options with your child of what they can and cannot have.”

Most schools publish menus online, giving you ample opportunity to review choices with your child. Convenient online systems such as PayPAMS in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools allows you to manage lunch money accounts and monitor students’ cafeteria purchases daily. This is a great tool that allows parents to guide children to more healthy foods when needed.

What’s In the Bag?

Packing a lunchbox is an easy way to ensure a balanced meal and have more control over what your child eats at school. Vodicka warns, however, that packing a nutritious lunch means avoiding many convenience foods such as prepackaged snacks and lunches that are high in sodium, sugar and fat. Potato chips, crackers and even deli meat can be filled with sodium.

“It’s a good idea to think about what you can include that’s healthy, nutritious and simple, and include more of the things kids need, like fruits and vegetables,” Vodicka says.

She recommends replacing the jelly in a PB&J with bananas or apples, or packing plain yogurt sweetened with frozen fruit. She also advises limiting fruit juice and letting kids buy milk at school.

Donna Trimble of Charlotte packs her son’s lunch four days a week and allows him to choose his meal in the cafeteria on the fifth day. “I really try to watch what he eats, and the only way to do that is to pack his lunch,” says Trimble. Letting her son, a rising third grader, choose a cafeteria meal once a week gives him some independence.

So, what should you stash in that lunch box? Dietitians recommend packing a protein, fruit, grain, vegetable and dairy in each meal. Consider choices such as whole-wheat bread, all-natural peanut butter, convenient pre-cut carrots and celery sticks, or easy-to-pack mini boxes of raisins.

Meleah Farlow of High Point packs her children lunches to make sure they get adequate nutrition. Typical lunches include a cup of soup, carrot sticks, low-fat ranch dressing and a cheese stick or a turkey hot dog on a whole-wheat bun with baked chips, orange slices and yogurt.

“Pick out those things that children like that are good for them and make it fun,” says Farlow. “Roll up a banana with some peanut butter on a whole-wheat wrap. Make a fun mix that has raisins, dark chocolate pieces, multi-grain Cheerios and peanuts.”

It’s important to encourage your children to eat healthy foods. Be a good nutrition role model and watch your food choices, because children often will try food their parents eat.

“You can’t expect them to drop the Oreos for carrot sticks in a day,” says Farlow. “I continually ask my kids to at least taste something and see if they like it. Sometimes they surprise themselves and find out they do.”

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer who supports buying food locally grown. She lives in Southeast Charlotte with her husband and two kids, ages 6 and 3.


Better Than a Brown Bag!

Lunch bags come in an assortment of shapes and sizes, and it’s something kids like to have a hand in selecting. Here are a few we suggest that are fun and practical.


This lunch bag by Artic Zone is carried over the shoulder like a purse. Made from neoprene and equipped with a reusable ice pack, it keeps things cold for hours. It also comes with a removable microbial snap-liner that makes it easy to clean. $12.99. Available at Target.

Drink, Recycle, Reuse

Made from upcycled juice pouches, this Terracycle lunch bag is an unusual twist on the traditional insulated lunch box. TerraCycle diverts tons of waste juice pouches annually and donates 2 cents to a charity or nonprofit for each pouch collected. $13.99

A Blank Canvas

Not only is it eco-friendly, this organic-cotton lunch bag can also be a fun art project. The blank canvas lets kids decorate and personalize their lunch bag, and it easily flattens and fits in a book satchel for ease of carrying home. $6.

Bento Box System

The Bento System 2.0 by Laptop Lunches includes five inner containers that rest in a tray, a set of stainless-steel utensils, and a water bottle, all of which zip into an insulated mini-laptop case. Also comes with and a user’s guide with healthy, tasty lunch ideas for kids. $39.99. Available at EarthFare.

Cartoon Funtime

Scooby Doo fans will love taking lunch in the Mystery Machine lunch bag by Thermos. The lunch bag is the traditional box size, and insulated to keep things cool. $9.99. Available at Target.

Lunchbox Love Notes

Send a little love along with your child’s lunch with these credit-card sized notes that feature positive, encouraging words on the front and fun trivia facts on the back.

Some of the Five Worst Items Found in a Child’s Lunch Box

Some of those lunch-box items you think are healthy may not be as good for you or your child as you think. Here are a few items that might seem innocent for a lunchbox staple, but pack a lot of the three bad items, sodium, fat and sugar, but don’t despair. We’ve found some alternatives that are just as tasty.

Lunch item: Oscar Mayer Lunchables Cracker Stackers Low-fat Ham and Swiss Cheese

Fast Facts: This seemingly well-rounded meal contains 970 milligrams sodium. That’s about 320 milligrams more than an average stick of salted butter.

Alternative: Try a slice of Boar’s Head Swiss Cheese, a slice of Hillshire Farm Ham and a serving of Triscuit’s Baked Whole Grain Crackers for a lower sodium profile of 318 milligrams.

Lunch item: Capri Sun Berry Breeze

Fast Facts: 100 percent juice doesn’t mean healthy. A single pouch contains 19 grams of sugar and 100 calories.

Alternative: Try Organic Mixed Berry Sensible Sippers juice boxes with 9 grams of sugar and 35 calories.

Lunch item: Pringles Original Snack Stackers

Fast Facts: One container holds 10 grams of fat. That’s one more gram of fat that a McDonald’s hamburger.

Alternative: Try Pirate’s Booty Potato Flyers for half the fat content.

Lunch item: Otis Spunkmeyer Blueberry Mini-Muffins

Fast Facts: One serving has 10 grams of fat and 40 milligrams of cholesterol. That’s three more grams of fat than, and twice the cholesterol, of a serving of Breyer’s Vanilla Ice Cream.

Alternative: Try a Quaker Oats Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bar that has 3 grams of fat and zero milligrams of cholesterol.

Lunch items: Ocean Spray Craisins

Fast Facts: Dried fruit is as healthy as fresh fruit, right? Not exactly. One serving contains about 29 grams of sugar. That’s five more grams than what you’ll get from a standard Hershey Bar.

Alternative: Try tossing in a medium apple for just 14 grams of sugar.