Snacktastic tips for back-to-school: keeping foods fun, fresh, healthy and interesting

As summer reaches its close, anyone else find a little back-to-school anxiety triggered by the contents of the fridge? Kids aren’t the only ones who may have to work at readjusting to routines when the structure of school kicks back in. Parents have new schedules and routines to take on board again too,  not least when it comes to planning out portable, healthy snacks. Foods that are fresh, fun, interesting and wholesome, too…ideally, ones kids will actually eat.

The most surefire way to ensure kids will eat the lunch that has been packed for them? Let them be the ones doing the packing! “Figuring out what to pack for lunch can be very stressful on families,” says Coach Mel, aka Melanie Potock, M.A., CCC-SLP, author of Raising a Happy, Healthy Eater and founder of My Munch Bug.”But it can also be an opportunity. All kids like predictability and being a part of the process. Ask them to help with choosing, preparing, and packing lunch items. They are more likely to enjoy food when they are involved.”

What if your child’s choices don’t exactly fit into your comfort zone? There are some tips and tricks that will encourage even hesitant eaters to try new foods at school. You’ll want to set some guidelines. Namely, be sure to include items from each key food group, particularly those colorful fruits and vegetables. Plant-based protein options that are also calcium-rich could include hummus and tofu. Taking time to prep for the prep can reap yields in learning and comfort with the lunch itself. Coach Mel recommends taking a picture of your child’s lunchbox and make a lunch-packing map. Together, brainstorm items that can fill the inside. Write down the preferred foods that fit the categories together. “This is a shared activity that will empower and encourage your child,” says Coach Mel. “Be sure to celebrate those small victories.” 

Oftentimes it’s not in fact the contents of the lunchbox that is responsible for the uneaten food that returns home later in the day, or worse, is trashed. For younger students especially, the buzzing, wide open bustle of the cafeteria can be an awfully overwhelming place. That narrow window in the school day for refueling is also valuable social time, too. “Picture a typical cafeteria table with benches made to fit the average fifth-grader,” says Coach Mel. “Your kindergartner’s feet are dangling and she has to balance while her elbows hunch up practically to shoulder level in order to stabilize herself on the table edge. In an effort to ensure that their kids eat anything at all, well-meaning parents pack lunch boxes filled to the brim, typically with seven to eight different options. By the time she gets out all the containers you’ve packed, plus the juice box straw finally unwrapped and poked hard enough that juice squirts her in the face, five minutes have gone by. She’s holding up her other hand to signal the teacher, “Can you please open this lid?” but there are three other kids who need help first. Meanwhile, that nice girl who played with her at the craft table this morning wants to chat—and she just wants to make friends.”

How to mitigate the impact of the lunchroom din and time constraints? Coach Mel has a host of tips available on her website, My Munch Bug. A few key tips specifically targeting cafeteria chaos include sending kids to school with one easy-open container with a drink; packing “grab-and-gab” food, items that allow for less unwrapping and unraveling and more socializing; and making extended use of favorite dinner leftovers.

We all have favorite go-to treats that may vary whether traveling, consuming on-the-go, at school, at work or home. To help stir up your creative juices for this new school year, we’ve checked in with a few of the many health-conscious and inspired Longmonsters for their unique insights on what works best for them when it comes to packing snacks and lunches everyone can look forward to:

Keep your cool. “So many popular junk foods get their appeal from the marketing that goes into them,” says Kat Whitt, mom of Daniel, Nathaniel, and Annabelle. “But it’s pleasantly surprising that with younger kids at least we can compete with the Spider-Man chips etc simply by throwing a sticker on a healthy snack.”

Make it easy (and sustainable) to get packing. “Investing in some sectioned stainless steel containers was really worthwhile, both in terms of not having to use plastic or disposable baggies everyday, and also for preparing snacks that offer variety and are appealing in presentation,” says Courtney Greedy, mom of [?]. Our top snacks are cheese and celery, cucumber and baby carrots, grass fed beef jerky, Stovetop Popcorn, Wholly Guacamole cups, and for a special treat ProBug kefir or homemade healthier muffins.”

Unleash your inner artists and play with your food. “What my kids especially love are Wasa crackers with nut butter, a drizzle of honey, and a sprinkle of cinnamon with another Wasa cracker on top,” says Christina Edstrom, mom of Violette and Christian. “Something fun and healthy I like to send them with is like apple art. I take an apple slicer and cut almost all the way down to the bottom. I sprinkle all the slices with cinnamon and then put the apple back together so that it looks whole, wrap a rubber band around it and send it off. It’s fun for the kids to pull apart, and the cinnamon disguides any brown oxidation of the apple. This is an especially useful snack when kids are losing their teeth and can’t hack a whole one.”

Don’t fret over resorting to fave standbys. “I’m the boring mom who packs them with a baggie of blueberries or a whole apple,” says Rachel Kulkarni, mom of Nik, Laila, and Anika. “When I’m feeling fancy, they get pretzels. But they love those snacks, I’m happy with them, and they don’t go to waste. It’s a win-win.” Simple canned tuna, chopped eggs, or chopped vegetables like carrots, cucumber, celery, and other vegetables are quick and easy to prep; when it just so happens these are well received by your hungry students, too, why reinvent the wheel?

Keep the conversation open. “Talk, talk, talk about leftovers,” Kat advises. “Whenever possible, involve kids in selecting healthy options. It may be that time is a limiting factor. My kids can become frustrated with foods that takes awhile to chew because snack time is so short. They love fruit–they’re as thrilled with any piece of fruit as with me trying to get fancy. But we peel in advance. Include choice of containers in the conversation. It’s really important that kids can manage their containers independently.”  

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