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Ask an Expert: Healthy school lunch ideas

Many moms and dads draw a blank when it comes to packing a healthy school lunch. Nutritionist Cathy Schmelter offers up some tips.

I recently purchased some retro lunch boxes to show schools how packed lunches have changed over the years. Can you say Judy Jetson thermos? It is fascinating to see how some foods have changed, but also how some foods have stayed the same.

A packed lunch in the ’50s may have consisted of a bread-and-butter or bologna-and-pickles sandwich, meatloaf with ketchup or even fried chicken, fruits and vegetables, a candy bar or cupcake or even Jell-O. The ’60s and ’70s brought bologna and American cheese slices, peanut butter and jelly, and ham and cheese with a thick swirl of Miracle Whip sandwiches. Celery sticks or a box of raisins, and a treat of Ho-Ho’s, Ding Dongs or Twinkies (my favorite at the time). So not much has changed.

As we evolve into the next generation of brown-baggers, will it look any different? I say a resounding “yes.” To start with, we are becoming more health-conscious. Parents and families are choosing more fresh and local produce (produce that may even come from their garden) and cooking more meals from scratch. Kids’ tastes have evolved, so that they now enjoy a lot of cultural cuisine – even hot sauce.

So, how can this translate into your child’s lunchbox?

What to pack in your child’s lunch

  • Fresh and local fruits and vegetables – To start with, farmers’ markets are still in full swing until about November, so finding whole fruits and vegetables is an easy addition. Plus, it is a fun adventure to have with your kids. Add some baby carrots, sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, melon, fresh-picked berries and more to their lunch ensemble.
  • For the health conscious – Families are moving away from high-fat, high-cholesterol, loaded with salt meats and cheeses and opting for more powered-by-plant proteins including one of my favorites – beans. Beans are loaded with protein, iron, calcium and fiber and are naturally low in calories and fats. Plus they are budget-friendly. Good lunch ideas with beans include bean burritos, lentil soups, succotash, baked beans and even mini bean burgers.
  • Cultural cuisine – Cultural cuisine allows you to go beyond the traditional bread-topped-with-bread sandwiches and look to the international breads of the world, including pita pockets from Greece, corn tortillas from Mexico and flatbread from ancient times. Kids like to discover unusual grains from around the world including tabbouleh, quinoa, wheat berries and orzo.
  • Cooking at home – Not the same drudgery that it once was, cooking is stylish again. Cooking with kids not only encourages them to eat what they make, but also to have fun and make something they can be proud of. If you’re looking for lunch ideas try some fall soups (tomato, corn, peas or squash), homemade dips (hummus, guacamole, tahini, salsa and chutneys) with veggies, potato wedges, pita chips or baked kale chips. Or some no-bake salads including watermelon salad, pasta or potato salads (with oil, vinegar and Dijon mustard) or a fresh bean taco salad.

But, if you’re still set on having that sandwich, here is my version of a modern “packed lunch sandwich”:

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Sandwich salad

This bread and salad meal is an Italian favorite known as panzanella.


7 cups corn bread (this can be made vegan if desired) cut into cubes.

1 can of white beans (16 ounce can) drained

1 head of romaine lettuce shredded or chopped (enough for 4 servings)

2 cups diced roma tomatoes

1 cup cucumbers – chopped

½ cup diced red onions

2 cups local sweet peppers

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon chili powder

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon unrefined sugar

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper


  • Bread: Preheat oven to 350°F. Spread corn bread cubes on a cookie sheet. Bake corn bread about 15 minutes until browned. Cool for 30 minutes (corn bread will crisp as they cool).
  • Dressing: While bread is baking and cooling, prepare dressing. Mix together garlic, vinegar, olive oil, chili powder, cumin, sugar, salt and pepper in a shaker container. Cover and shake well.
  • Salad: Mix together ¼ of the recipe (1 serving) of beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a medium bowl. Add ¼ of the baked corn bread and mix again. Portion out a serving of salad into a lunch container. Place one portion of salad dressing into a small container, separate from the salad.

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Have your child add the salad dressing to their salad at lunchtime. Place the remaining salad in a container and refrigerator. Place the bread in a covered container and the beans in another covered container.

The benefit of this salad is you can prepare it ahead of time and portion it out over an entire week if desired. Enjoy your lunch.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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