Homegrown Looks at Packing Lunches

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Kids are back in school and everyone’s settling back into a schedule. One of the daily tasks that can get hectic is packing that school lunch or providing healthy after-school snacks. The latest edition of Homegrown from NC State Extension addresses these concerns. Catherine Hill, Nutrition Programs Manager, Family and Consumer Sciences with NC State Extensions offers some new ideas and hacks.

Homegrown is a video series produced by NC State Extension. Each month there are new topics that feature the Kitchen, the Garden, or the Farm. Extension Specialists and experts from across the state offer guidance and resources on topics that affect North Carolinians.

In a video entitled “Back-to-school Snacks and Lunch-packing Hacks,” Hill offers key points for packing easy and healthy lunches. She suggests developing a system that works for you and having the supplies and materials available to make it easy.

As for what foods to put into the lunches, she recommends using MyPlate as a guide. She uses the BIN system and suggests you get bins or other containers to help you organize and store all the lunch supplies together. Spending some time upfront to create a system for storing and organizing the food will save you significant time and angst down the road.

With this system, you’ll need bins or containers for both the refrigerator and pantry. Clear out designated spaces to add whatever bins or boxes you have for snacks and lunches. These could be plastic baskets, old shoe boxes, clear plastic bins, or whatever you have handy. You’ll also need a supply of zip-top bags or small reusable containers to make your own “portion-controlled” packs.

Keep the bins within reach for both you and your kids. When it’s time to pack their lunch box, have the kiddos help select what they want from the bins. This also helps you to recognize when you’re running low on something.

TIP: When you come home from grocery shopping, take a couple of extra minutes and repackage items into snack or lunch portions. The kids can help with this too. You could cut carrots while they place them into plastic bags, for example, or have them count out crackers for smaller containers. Helping mom or dad in the kitchen can be a fun learning activity for them. You might want to set some “ground rules” for this food. You could have separate bins for lunch and bins for snacks. This way the kids will know what foods they can snack on and what foods need to be saved for lunches. This will help ensure that there are lunch foods available when it comes
time to pack lunches.

Hill also offers some tips for what foods to put in your bins. Following MyPlate will provide nutritious options that incorporate all five food groups.

Foods for the Fridge

  • Vegetables: Carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, edamame. Small purchased cups of guacamole.
  • Fruit: Fresh fruit (tangerines, berries, melon), fruit cups in 100% juice, unsweetened applesauce cups, or pouches. Fruits with peels are “ready to go.” Wash fruit ahead of time and have it in the bins or in serving-size packets for quick packing or snacks.
  • Protein: Hummus cups, hard-cooked eggs, low-sodium deli meat
  • Dairy: Cheese sticks, cheese slices, yogurt, milk carton

Pantry Food Items

  • Whole-grain starches: Whole-grain bread, wheat tortillas, wheat English muffins, popcorn, whole-wheat crackers, whole-grain cereal,
    rice cakes
  • Nuts or seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, peanut butter
  • Fun treats: Trail mix, dark chocolate, fruit leather

You’ll note that there are no sandwiches in Hill’s bins. That’s because prepared sandwiches don’t store well. While sandwiches are traditionally found in lunches, they don’t have to be included if you’ve got other nutritional food choices. But, if you do want sandwiches, have the supplies ready and prepare them in the morning.

You can subscribe to Homegrown to be notified each month when new videos are available. There are also links to additional information from NC State Extension on related topics. You might want to check out the Homegrown series on Super Simple Snacks.


Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610 or by email at cheryle_syracuse@ncsu.edu.