This article originally appeared in the Sept. 1, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Lean economic times are inspiring many adults and children to bring their lunches to work and school, but a brown-bag lunch doesn’t have to skimp on taste or food safety.
Many parents struggle to combine healthy and affordable ingredients into a packed lunch for their child. Adding to the stress of selecting foods, a recent study in Pediatrics found that most brown-bagged lunches aren’t kept cool enough to prevent bacteria that could cause food poisoning.
Luckily, some foods can pull double duty as healthy and safe lunches, said Rita Chrivia, a registered dietitian at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.
“Parents can get 100 percent juice boxes and freeze them overnight,” Chrivia said. “The juice boxes will act as an ice pack to keep other foods in the lunch box cold, and they’ll defrost by lunch time.”
Another lunch-time staple, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, can benefit from time in the freezer. All-natural peanut butter contains little more than peanuts and delivers a hearty serving of protein and healthy fats.
“Parents can make several peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the weekend and freeze them,” Chrivia said. “These sandwiches will defrost by lunch time. Although it’s not necessary to refrigerate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the cold sandwich can help fruits and veggies stay cool.”
Although “brown-bagging” is a phrase that has become synonymous with bringing your lunch, Chrivia recommends that parents ditch the traditional brown bag. A plastic container with an ice pack built into the container or under the lid is a much safer bet for kids’ lunches, which aren’t typically refrigerated in schools. A container with a built-in ice pack is an absolute must for items like leftovers and lunch-meat sandwiches.
Containers with ice packs can do much more than keep foods cool. They can help parents enhance their creativity and come up with fun lunches that will keep kids interested in eating well.
Kids often gravitate toward foods that are high in fat, sugar and sodium—the stuff that may be good for taste buds but not so good to their bodies. Many children love to eat the prepackaged lunches with meats, cheeses and crackers, but parents can make healthier lunches with just a bit more effort.
“Parents can get the containers that are divided and create their own versions of these prepackaged lunches,” Chrivia said. “This lets them control the quality of the food but still provides some variety for kids at lunch. As a bonus, making your own may save money.”
Packing a healthy lunch most days is important. However, having the occasional high sugar, salt, or fat food is not a deal breaker. It is more important that parents teach their children to establish a lifetime of healthy eating habits.
Parents can get information about healthy and safe foods at eatright.org/kids.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon website at www.cardinalglennon.com.