It's back to school time, and for many of us that means it's lunchbox time! Read on for how to get that insulated food thermos ready, tips on packing lunches that are safe to eat, and 10 creative lunchbox ideas...

 Insulated Food Jars

An insulated food jar opens the door to all kinds of lunch possibilities. Healthy, homemade pasta dishes, hearty soups and even last night's leftovers can all be kept hot and at a safe temperature with these! Here are a few tips that may come in handy:

  • Not all thermoses are created equal. Use a good quality vacuum insulated food jar.
  • Make sure your child can open the thermos by themselves. This goes for any foods being packed in a lunchbox!
  • Pre-heat the jar by filling with boiling water. Let stand a few minutes to heat the container, then empty the water and fill with steaming hot food.
  • Before using it for the first time, fill it with hot food and test the temperature of the food with an instant read food thermometer 4-6 hours after packing. For optimal safety, hot items should be above 140F. Foods between 40F and 140F are considered to be in "The Danger Zone" where bacteria can multiply quickly. Err on the safe side -- food that has been in "The Danger Zone" for more than 2 hours should not be eaten.
  • Insulated food jars aren't just for hot foods. They can also be used to keep cold foods cold! Chill the container before adding cold foods by adding ice water and letting sit for several minutes before filling.

 Safe Packing!

WIth a little planning, it's a snap to pack a delicious, nutritious and safe lunch for your kids. Let them help and soon they'll be safely packing their own lunches!

The Night Before:

  • Reminding the kids to always wash hands before preparing or eating any food is never a bad idea. Safe food begins with clean hands!
  • Prepare and refrigerate any perishable foods.
  • Use an insulated lunchbox. If the lunchbox can fit in the fridge, consider leaving it there overnight with the lid open to pre-chill. 
  • Freeze water bottles or juice boxes and any freezer gel packs you want to use. 

In the Morning:

  • Put freezer gel pack and frozen water/juice in Ziplocs to prevent condensation from wetting other items. 
  • Place a gel pack in the bottom of the cooler and put the most perishable lunch items directly on top. 
  • Use a cloth napkin or paper towel to cover lunch items and then put snack items on top. This helps keep the cold air in with the lunch items when the lunchbox is opened for snack-time. Tell your child to leave the napkin in place until after lunchtime!
  • If you are packing hot items in a thermos, cosider sending that separately.
  • Place frozen water/juice in with the snack on top. This will keep the snack cold as it thaws. 
  • Be sure the lunchbox is well closed.

After School:

  • Lunchboxes can be a breeding ground for germs. Clean out your child's lunchbox daily with a disinfectant and soapy water and let air dry. 

 Testing, Testing...

Do a quick test run before school starts to make sure the meals will be safe and appetizing. 

Prepare the lunchbox and leave on the kitchen counter. After 4-6 hours (or whatever the estimated time is that the lunchbox will be out of refrigeration before the food is eaten), use an instant read thermometer to test the temperatures of any perishable cold or hot items. 

Cold items should be under 40F and hot items should be above 140F for optimal safety. Between 40F and 140F is considered "The Danger Zone". 

As a general rule, perishable foods are not considered safe to eat once they have been in "The Danger Zone" for 2 hours. It's in this zone that bacterial grow and multiply rapidly!

 10 Creative Lunchbox Ideas:

  1. Athough kids to tend to eat the same things over and over again, they can get bored, too! An easy way to mix thngs up is to use different breads. Try small bagels, English muffins, dinner rolls, pita breads and wraps. 
  2. Whole wheat is preferable, but if the kids don't eat it.... Send them to school with the healthiest foods possible, but ones you know they will eat. 
  3. Leftovers make great lunches! To ensure they are safe to eat, refrigerate leftovers promptly after dinner. Leftover mashed potatoes and veggies? Brown a little ground beef and layer for a delicious Shepherd's Pie!
  4. Try simple and nutritionally complete meals like Chicken & Rice (with finely chopped veggies tossed in) and soups.
  5. Do the kids like Mexican food? Beef and bean burritos can be heated until steaming, wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in an insulated food jara. 
  6. Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches, quesadillas and cheese into different shapes. Witches and pumpkins are fun in October, Christmas trees in December....
  7. Let the kids help plan their lunch. Give them two or three healthy options to choose from. If the kids are small, this seems like a lot of work, but soon they may be able to make them all on their own! They may even offer great suggestions you never considered.
  8. Baked tortilla chips and refried beans or salsa make a tasty, healthy snack, as do pretzel sticks with nut butter.
  9. Include a little something in your child's lunchbox - a knock-knock joke, personal note or even a special pencil or eraser. They'll remember those little touches forever. 
  10. So many kids go to school with sweets in their lunchbox. Homemade cookies, mini-muffins and slices of cake can be a real treat and still healthful. When baking quickbreads, muffins and cakes, experiment with the following substitutions:  Use 1/4 whole wheat flour and 3/4 all-purpose white flour for added fiber, and for every 1/2 cup of oil in a recipe, use 2 Tbsp of oil and 6 Tbsp of unsweetened applesauce. Use 1/4 less sugar as the applesauce adds natural sweetness.

 Here's to healthy, homemade lunches and an awesome new school year!

~ Audra

Lunchbox Tips!