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Top 10 Back-to-School Food Tips

By Erin Ihde, MA, CCRP-Project Manager, Environmental Research
The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center® 
Finding foods that are easy to pack – and that your child will actually eat – can sometimes be a challenge. Below are a few tips to make the job a little easier, and healthier. 
Fruit___VegetablesCut it up: Cut up veggies (carrots, celery, sweet peppers, broccoli florets, or anything else your child likes). Easy finger foods like this are quick to pack and can be prepped ahead. 
fruit_salad_crop_shutterstock_63203863Strike a balance: Try to include a variety for lunches and snacks including protein, fruit, veggies, and whole grains. 
shutterstock_108881066Cut the sugar: Many lunchbox-ready snacks – from yogurt to granola bars to cookies – are loaded with sugar. Just one of these – not to mention a few over the course of a day – can make a child seem hyper, irritable and even lose concentration. Instead, opt for fresh berries or cut-up fruit, reduced-sugar yogurts, and dried mangoes, raisins or apples, which can all go a long way to satisfy a sweet tooth. Cookies and granola bars made from scratch allow you to control the amount of sugar, too, and making them in large batches saves time.
Double_Chocolate_Peppermint_cookies2Ditch the caffeine: Seemingly simple items like chocolate cookies can contain enough caffeine to be a strong stimulant for a toddler (or even older) child. If eating chocolate or coffee-flavored items increases irritability or interferes with your child settling down to sleep, cut it out of their diet. Remember that even healthy or natural-labeled foods like “green tea” items can contain caffeine. 
Storage Smarts: Ask if your child’s school has a refrigerator in the classroom or lunchroom for storing lunches until mealtime. If not, include an ice pack to keep foods cold, or use an insulated container. Opt for stainless steel, unbleached cotton, silicone or unbleached paper containers and wrappers. Consider a stainless steel bento box, which can fit a whole meal into one simple, divided container. These options may cost more than plastic or disposable versions, but save money over time if you only have to buy them once. They’re available at select big-box stores, and a variety of online retailers such as Amazon,,, and Remember to label everything with your child’s name so it comes back home!
eco_lunch_boxshutterstock_109889819Warm it up: If you’re sending warm foods such as leftover soups or casseroles, consider heating them at home and packing them in a leak-proof, stainless steel container that’s double-walled or insulated to keep the food warm until meal time. 
School_LunchKnow Your Child’s Options: When time is tight and there’s no opportunity to pack lunch for your child, or if s/he prefers to buy lunch, check in with your child about making healthy choices in the cafeteria. Ask your child what’s available, or go online for a copy of the school’s monthly menu. See if there's any veggies or fruit as part of the meal, what the drink options are, and so on. You may not be there to choose the lunch, but checking in with your child and modeling healthy eating at home will help encourage him or her to make healthy choices, whether they’re a pre-schooler or high-schooler. 
Organic_SignsGo for organic: Choose organic items when possible, which avoids toxic pesticides and GMO’s. Check out the EWG Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM for the most heavily-treated fruits and veggies, that should be bought organic when possible.  
gmo_freeGo GMO-free: Items with a “GMO-free” or Non-GMO Project label are also preferred, as they don’t contain genetically-engineered ingredients. 
girl_eating_pastaDo What Works: At the end of the day, make sure they’re actually eating what you send! Check in with your child to see what they liked and didn’t like in their lunch. Introduce new items along with tried-and-true favorites. Do what works, and know that your efforts – no matter how small – are helping to grow a healthy child.
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