It’s back-to-school time, when things calm down a bit at Fairyland, and parents of young children start thinking about what goes in the lunchbox. My baby is 22, but I still remember the best–and worst–things I packed for her.

The best was a cooked chicken hot dog immersed in its cooking liquid and placed in a Thermos. Bun and condiments were in the box. The worst? Individually packaged gelatin cups holding a lychee nut, which were popular at the time with tween girls, but later identified as a choking hazard and recalled by many companies. Oops.

Last weekend, our local Whole Foods Market hosted a back-to-school event to showcase “over 15 kid-friendly vendors sampling delicious nibbles.” I checked them out, and it’s a whole different world than the one in which I used to operate.

Clif Bars for kids. Pop and Kale Chips. Annie’s Bunny Grahams. Better Bean chili. Sunbutter (made from sunflower seeds). Plum Organics Mash-ups, which include a combo plate of dairy, “ancient grain,” fruit and vegetable—in one squeezable bag.

So many options—and so little time in the morning to figure out what will get your child through the school day.

To get the best advice on lunchbox strategy, I contacted my friend Meg Zweiback, who has been counseling families with young children for more than 30 years, and who writes a regular column for Parents’ Press.

Here are her tips:

  • Pack what you think your kids will eat, not what you think they should eat. When kids don’t like the food in their lunches, they toss them or trade them.
  • Ask your kids what they want, and don’t worry if it’s the same thing every day. You may be bored, but they aren’t.
  • If you have “particular” (a.k.a. picky) eaters, the indirect approach works best: Involve them in meal planning. One strategy is the Color Crunch system, a game that can help simplify choices: for every meal your child chooses foods with three colors, one grain, one protein. Points are won for trying new foods. (More information at
  • Try to include protein and fat: nutrients that are slower to digest and keep kids’ energy up. All-carbohydrate lunches, even when they consist of “healthy” pasta, fruit and vegetables, won’t last long, and kids will be hungry by the end of the school day. Adding cheese or meat boosts the staying power.
  • If your child will eat leftovers, a good Thermos will keep food hot.
  • Many packaged foods are high in sugar—it doesn’t make any difference nutritionally if the product is “natural” or “organic.” Read the labels on yogurt in tubes, granola bars, fruit leathers: many have as much as 10 grams of sugar and little protein. There are good prepared items–Trader Joe’s is a good resource–and you can have kids read the labels to choose the best ones.
  • If your school bans peanuts and peanut products, respect the rules and buy almond or sunflower butter. Don’t complain; be a part of the village.

Meg is wise and witty, and she freely encourages parents and teachers to print out materials from her website,, on topics from potty training to ADHD. A registered nurse and a registered pediatric nurse practitioner, she has been the go-to gal for many East Bay parents.

I think the key is to not get too stressed about school lunches. For years during my own childhood, I demanded a tuna sandwich, barbeque potato chips and a pickle every single day, and I turned out okay. Mostly.

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