Real Food Tips: School Lunch FAQs (the answers to all your questions!)

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When I post my daughters’ “real food” school lunch pictures on Facebook it often provokes a lot of questions. So here – all in one place – are some answers for ya! Now let’s just hope we can get all those with the questions to actually read this post :) If I left out any of the more common ones please let me know in the comments below…I know some of you are just as familiar with these daily school lunch questions as I am!

  1. Where do you get those snazzy divided lunch containers? And what does the lunch look like after being tossed all around on the way to school? Don’t the yogurt and applesauce leak into the other compartments?
    We actually own quite a few different lunch containers, but I do find myself reaching for our BPA-free Ziplock divided containers most often. And there are two main reasons why – First, each compartment is truly leak-proof therefore liquids will stay put no matter how much the box is tossed around on the way to school, and secondly, they are lightweight and easy to wash and open (okay, I guess that is technically 3 more reasons – but we really like these). Plus at the uber reasonable cost of $5+ for 2 containers they are a great deal!
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    The divided lunch containers can be purchased at…
    - Amazon
    - Target (stores only)
    – Walmart (online and in stores)lunch in ziploc container-
  2. How do you keep your cut apples from turning brown (i.e. oxidizing)?
    Here’s the deal – there are a few things you can do, but I actually don’t do anything. What I’ve learned (based on my own personal experience and no scientific data whatsoever) is that some apple varieties seem to brown much faster than others. For example, the Red Delicious apples I cut open tend to start turning brown within minutes. Honey Crisp, on the other hand (a seasonal apple that is a little harder to find), can sit in the fridge for days after being sliced and hardly change color. Maybe those apples are fresher and that makes a difference? I have honestly never spent very much time looking into it. So I simply go for the apples that either are or look kind of similar to Honey Crisp on the outside (like Gala), and when I do I find that I have better luck. I have tried putting lemon juice on our apple slices, but one day my poor daughter came home from school saying her apples tasted like “cleaning solution.”
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    But if you choose to go the route of preventing oxidation regardless here are some options…
    Citrus: As I mentioned, I wouldn’t recommend straight up lemon juice so either water it down or go for something less offensive like orange juice or pineapple juice.
    Salt Water Bath: I have not personally tried this, but blog readers often tell me this works great.
    Cinnamon: This is another suggestion from my wonderful blog readers, but it will certainly change the apple slices from just being plain (I do think it would add a nice flavor though).
    - Rubber-band: Surely we’ve all seen the image on Pinterest by now? Slice the whole apple then hold it back together with a rubberband until lunchtime. This would only work if you normally send the whole apple – and they would of course have to dispose of the core or just leave it in their lunch box.
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  3. How do you keep cold items cold and hot items hot until lunchtime (my child doesn’t have access to a refrigerator or a microwave)?
    I keep cold items cold by packing 3 or 4 small ice packs together with the lunch box in an insulated lunch bag (we use the “Soft Sided” lunch bags by Lands End because they fit both our lunch box and thermos cup nicely). I keep hot items hot (like soup, pasta, beans, etc.) by heating them up the morning before school and transferring them to a thermos container, which is designed to keep food hot for up to 5 hours (more on those details here). I don’t stress about packing hot and cold together, but I do try to keep them each on their own sides of the lunch bag when I do.
    cold lunches-
  4. Where is the protein??
    We believe that part of eating a real food diet means not counting fat grams, calories, carbs, or even protein. Instead, you simply eat a variety of whole foods (without overeating) and the rest just falls into place. Other countries outside of the U.S. routinely follow this practice and don’t obsessively add up numbers like we do – plus all that calculating can sure take the enjoyment out of your meal in my opinion! But, if you still insist on counting up numbers anyway, please know it is rare for the average person who is eating a varied diet to have a protein deficiency. Please check out my “Why are Americans so concerned about protein?” post for more details.
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  5. Are you really allowed to send peanuts and peanut butter in you daughter’s lunches? It’s not allowed at my child’s school – what can I pack instead?
    Our entire school used to be nut-free, but last year they changed it to just one “nut-free class” per grade level. And this is actually the first school year I have not had a child in a nut-free class so it is the first time since my kids started elementary school that I can freely send peanuts, peanut butter, tree nuts, etc. – so, yes, I do just that. And just for the record, when we were in the nut-free class I took it very seriously and miraculously never “goofed” or forgot – but outside of those designated classrooms the school has given us no reason to believe there is an issue with us sending products containing peanuts or tree nuts.
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    If your child does have an allergy or is in a nut-free class or school, some great alternatives to peanut butter are…-
    - Sunflower seed butter (be sure to check the package to make sure it wasn’t manufactured in a facility that also processes peanuts or tree nuts)
    - Cream cheese
    PB Alternatives-
  6. Are the lunches you pack enough food for your kids? They look like they would be a small snack for my football-playing teenage son!
    While I thank you for your concern I do pride myself in knowing my own children well enough to have a good understanding of their appetites. I am certainly not always spot on, but I do think I am pretty close most days. Not to mention we do think real food is much more filling than the processed stuff AND my daughters do both get a morning snack at school (usually oatmeal) as well as an afternoon snack when they get home – in addition to a standard breakfast and dinner of course. Long story short, I can assure you that everyone is well fed at our house. Now my daughters are only 6 and 8-years-old so I would never expect the amount of lunch that is right for them to also be right for a 6-ft tall teenage boy (or even an extra hungry younger child) so please feel free to simply use our lunch ideas for guidance and supplement or switch things up for your own kids as necessary. I personally think leftover dinners would be a great way to fill up hungrier kids.
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  7. When you pack items that you’ve previously made and frozen (like soup, muffins, waffles, homemade uncrustables, etc.) how and when do you defrost them?
    Since I am in the habit of packing my kids lunches the day before, I almost always pull out frozen items the night before as well. I usually allow items to defrost in the fridge overnight – which is required for soups and such – but bread-like items that are not already packed with perishable items are fine defrosting on the counter by themselves. Sometimes I forget or just decide to add a frozen muffin at the last minute on the morning of school and, even so, it is still defrosted and totally edible by lunchtime. For more on this topic check out my list of 10 Recipes to Make and Freeze for School Lunches.
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  8. There is no way I could get my picky kid to eat the items you pack in your lunches – any advice?
    Right off the bat – the fact that you are here reading a real food school lunch post is a great start! I say get your kids involved in deciding what to pack. But, please remember, it is our job as parents to give them the right choices. For example, don’t ask if they want organic cheese cubes or cheetos – ask if they want cheese cubes or sliced apples! Lots of blog readers tell me that they sit down with their kids and look at my school lunch pictures together so their child can easily point out what real food items they’d like to have in their lunch (love this idea!). For even more tips be sure to check out my blog post all about winning over your picky eater. And most importantly…be sure to use gentle persistence and don’t give up on them!

I hope this post helps to clear some things up…please feel free to leave additional questions in the comments below.

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111 comments to Real Food Tips: School Lunch FAQs (the answers to all your questions!)

  • Linda

    I buy a bottle of Vitamin C powder on amazon and soak the apples in a bowl of water with a small sprinkling of the vitamin c powder. They don’t brown, nor does it change the flavor. I buy the Now brand.

  • Gina

    I work for a local school and to keep our apples from browning we dip in pineapple juice. I do this for my own lunch. I only use fresh ingredients the fresh pineapples I use always have extra juice when cut. The apples taste great this way!

  • Becca

    To keep apples from turning brown all you have to do is put them in a bowl with water and a little bit of lemon juice, swirl them around for a second and then take them out. No lemon flavor will stick to the apples.

  • Heather

    Love your blog – but did have to laugh when you mentioned left over dinner for teenage boys. Grin – growing up with just a sister – I had no idea how much teenage boys eat. I have three and there are no left overs. Ever!!!! :-) But I do use your ideas and just use larger portions.

  • Cayla

    I am trying to find these ziplock containers… I see them on amazon, but I see them listed at $25 for 2? I like the $5 range better!! Am I looking at the right thing, or am I missing something?

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003U6DJ90/ref=pd_luc_rh_top_sim_04_02_t_lh?ie=UTF8&psc=1

  • Jordana

    I always soak apple slices in lightly salted water for 3-4 minutes. This keeps them from browning and doesn’t alter the taste as much as lemon juice can.
    Salt water soaking will actually sweeten very tart apples, such as Granny Smiths, making them much more palatable for children.

  • Sarah

    Just a note to those of you who have younger kids off at school. I love the Ziplock containers and that the food truly stays separate. However, I had my new Kindergartener try to open these several times before the first day of school, and she never could get it open and she’s a fairly self-sufficient kid for her age. We use the rubbermaid bento box type system ($13 on amazon) and while it doesn’t keep messy foods separate, she can open them on her own.

  • Emma Dunn

    When are you supposed to make the mac and cheese on week 1 of the six weeks of school lunches as it’s not listed on the’weekend before’ section and then just appears on Tuesday to put in thermos?

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