Healthy Fuel for School: What’s for Lunch?

Mystery meat. Weird, greasy, rectangle-shaped pizza. Sloppy Joes of indeterminate provenance. This is the way most adults remember their cafeteria-produced school lunch. And while getting your child ready to go back to school may spark some fond nostalgia, for most, the cafeteria food elicits a response that is something less than enthusiastic.

But nowadays, many schools have upped their game — to the point that some kids actually consider the school lunch a welcome treat, some local parents said.

Elizabeth Souder-Philyaw’s second-grader, who attends school in the Richardson Independent School District, “loves school lunches.”

“We’ve turned it into a reward for good behavior,” she added.

Kristen Shear, whose children will be in first and fourth grades at Richardson ISD this year, said that their father usually packs their lunch, “but we also use it [school lunches] as a reward — or a special treat when one of us comes to eat with them!”

“My eighth-grader loves the salad bar, which is actually full of really great stuff,” Erin Canada, whose daughters attend schools in the Plano Independent School District, said. “My 10th-grader literally eats anything in her path.”

“The Dallas ISD school lunch is so much better than I remember my school lunch!” Dallas mom Heather Guild, whose son is in first grade, said. “Pizza is served on pita bread and the kids can spread their own sauce, cheese and toppings.”

And these kids aren’t alone. Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner reviewed some sample “Smart Box” meals for the Dallas Independent School District last year and came away impressed. “The district is making a big effort to include Texas-grown produce in its lunches,” she pointed out.

The district also began offering the “Smart Boxes” last year, which are easy grab-and-go compostable containers of things like hummus, pita and vegetables; salads; and sandwiches and fruit.

“Initiatives include Harvest of the Month, which highlights a Texas-grown produce item and gives students the chance to taste it; and ‘Lean & Green Day,’ which is designed to encourage students to replace meat with plant-based protein options one day a week,” the district wrote last year.

But even the parents we spoke to who raved about school lunches agreed that sometimes they find themselves packing a lunch box. And some parents we talked to always pack a lunch. So how do they make sure the lunch is healthy and prevent the dreaded carrot stick boomerang?

Andrea Perkins, whose daughter is going into second grade in Dallas ISD, said she has been pleased with the healthy choices her daughter makes when she goes through the lunch line, but she doesn’t overly stress over it.

“On days I send lunch, it’s often what she calls ‘snack lunch,’ which includes pickles or cherry tomatoes, chunks of ham or turkey, whole grain crackers or tortillas, fruit and maybe some pretzels,” she said. “Otherwise I send PB&J or another type of sandwich and fruit. She also likes things like meatballs or leftovers from her favorite dinners. She brings a refillable water bottle and drinks water.

“So I pick my battles. She always gets a healthy breakfast at home, and I cook healthy dinners every weeknight, for the most part.”

“I keep a handful of things so that can make a lunch on the mornings he just doesn’t want the cafeteria food,” Guild said, adding that her go-to items are easy staples she can keep in the pantry or fridge and pull together.

She added that there is a benefit for some kids to taking a lunch every day. “If you have a slow eater, the lunch line takes time to go through, so sending a lunch gets them started on lunch sooner,” she said.

“My preschoolers especially like to get apple slices, carrots or celery they can dip in peanut butter,” Souder-Philyaw said. “Also, my daughter loves a hard-boiled egg, which I wrap in a napkin and place snugly into a little container.”

Kara Tolany, whose children are in second and fifth grade at Frisco Independent School District, agrees that things her children can dip or construct themselves are big hits.  “My fifth grader loves ‘dipping lunches’ – yogurt, hummus, peanut butter. My second grader loves fake Lunchables – aka homemade. They both dig anything they assemble themselves.”

“Our go-to is turkey and cheddar on whole wheat with mustard,” said Carolyn Johnson, whose child goes to Lamplighter School in Dallas. “Cut fruit (apple, pear or peach usually). Cut veggies and dip (cucumbers, carrots, hummus, ranch). Raisins. Maybe a treat on occasion.”

Laura Pratt, whose daughter attends Montessori Children’s House and School in Dallas, said she’s had two inventive successes: “Tuna melt on sprouted wheat bagel, and pesto and cream cheese on sourdough trimmed into long, finger-sized strips.” She added, “The melt works well for us as our school uses warming drawers.”

“I aim for differences in color, for visual appeal; in texture, for mouth appeal; and something savory and something sweet,” Renee Strickland said of the lunches she creates for her third-grade daughter. She also curates an album on Facebook of the various bento box lunches she has created to help give other parents ideas.

She recommends quesadillas as a great way to both use small amounts of leftover meat and to pack some nutrition in. “Two ounces of shredded chicken, beef or pork (or leftover sauteed mushrooms and onions), along with a handful of chopped fresh spinach, cilantro, and/or green onions, all held together with shredded cheese between two Hatch flour tortillas,” she said of her recipe. This summer, it’s been frequently paired with black bean salad, raw bell pepper strips and fruit.

But Strickland is also a fan of quick, too. “I’m also a huge fan of frozen finger foods. Pot stickers, egg rolls, spanakopita, and steamed buns regularly make the rotation,” she said. “I throw a serving into the convection oven to cook while we make breakfast, and they’re ready to go into the lunch bag before we head out the door.”

Cristen Perkowski’s daughter is going into first grade at Plano ISD. She said that her daughter alternates cafeteria lunches and packed lunches, but they’ve had many discussions about making healthful choices. “I ask her to do her best to get the veggie and eat it every time,” she said. “I tell her she still has to eat all the food groups, so pick what you’ll eat within them.”

“She’s still a self-tattler, so she’ll tell me if she threw something away — and then we talk about not wasting, that some people don’t have food, and that food is for nutrition and we don’t have to always like it to just eat it, etc.,” Perkowski added.

And as for those carrots? “They sure do boomerang!” she said. “I pack a reasonable amount for her. I’ll say, ‘I’ve only packed you four little sticks. I know you can eat those, so please do.’ And she will. When it’s a big bag, and she’s overwhelmed at not liking them, she’ll eat maybe one and toss them all.”

Many parents pointed out the fact that the youngest students might not be able to open every container in their packed lunch, leading to things getting tossed instead of eaten.

“I would say that as someone who helps in the cafeteria, parents often send food their kids can’t open without help,” Guild said. “I would practice having them open anything in their lunch box.”

“I totally agree that it’s important with the little ones to make sure they can manipulate their lunch box as well as any containers or packages that will be inside,” Perkins said. “Lots of kids throw away food if they can’t open it.”

Learn more about packing nutrient-dense and tasty lunches for your child. Need more nutrition advice and help? To find a qualified dietitian, call 1-877-THR-WELL.

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