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

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. I’ve seen you updated your lunch boxes, where can I purchase one of those really cool ones?!
Yes, we’ve definitely upgraded our girls’ lunch boxes and bags. We used to use the Ziplock divided containers (see below), but now we use these new ones from Sistema. They fit so much food and fold up into to three different compartments. They can be found at AmazonWalmart, or Target, and come in different colors.

Our New Lunch Boxes on 100 Days of Real Food

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2. Where do you get those snazzy divided lunch containers that you used to use all the time? 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 before we switched lunch boxes, I did 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 liked these). Plus at the uber reasonable cost of $5+ for 2 containers, they are a great deal!

The divided lunch containers can be purchased at…
– Target (stores only)
– Walmart (online and in stores)lunch in ziploc container

3. 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.”

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 rubber band 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.

4. 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

5. 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.

6. Are you really allowed to send peanuts and peanut butter in your 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 a few years ago they changed it to just one “nut-free class” per grade level. When they were attending that school during that change, it was the first time  I did not have a child in a nut-free class so it was the first time since my kids started elementary school that I could freely send peanuts, peanut butter, tree nuts, etc.—so, yes, I did 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 never gave us a reason to believe there was an issue with us sending products containing peanuts or tree nuts.

If your child does have an allergy or is in a nut-free class or school, some great alternatives to peanut butter are…

dfds-For tons of nut-free school lunch ideas, I’ve put together a list for you here and here, so you can check them out all in one place.

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

7. 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. When my daughters were only 6 and 8-years-old, 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.

8. 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.

9. 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!

10. Where do you get those amazing looking bagels?… and where can I find whole-wheat pitas?
I get this question almost every time I share a photo of them! I wish they were available everywhere, but I purchase them from a local bakery here in NC called Poppyseeds. When I make my girls sandwiches using pitas, I grab a bag from Trader Joes!

11. When do you make baked goods?
I make most baked goods (like muffins and pancakes) in advance and store them in our freezer. So when I am packing school lunches the night before I just pull out what I need so it can defrost in the fridge overnight. Almost all of the recipes I used can be found on the blog…just use the search box at the top right of the page to find what you are looking for!

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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  1. We use orange juice for apple slices. It has always worked, and makes the apples taste good instead of sour. It only takes a couple of tablespoons to toss the slices in.

  2. This may not bea common question but this is something I have been struggling with for a long time. My 9 year old son is refusing to eat anything he calls “healthy food ” because every one of his friends get to have junk food in their lunches like pop tarts and lunchables amd chips and he gets healthy food like veggies and fruit. Je says he feels left out. Hes very self conscious and has a huge need to be the same. Ive tried explaining the benefits of eating healthy and the dangers of eating junk food. But he doesnt care. How did you explain to your kids why you give them the food they do and how did you get them to eat it and go a long with it

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      I would say read #8 again and just know that it is a pretty common problem. Your gentle persistence (and insistence) will eventually work. :) Involving him in the choices can help a lot, too.

  3. I sprinkle a little cinnamon on sliced apples — it tastes good and bonus, it smells like apple pie. Agree that honey crisps don’t turn brown very quickly.

  4. How do you recommend freezing your baked goods – waffles, muffins, breads, etc? I put them on the counter until they are entirely cooled, then put them in a pyrex container and into the freezer. Do you use Ziploc bags? They just do not seem to keep quite as fresh the way I’m doing it, but I was trying to avoid the waste of the Ziploc baggies because we seem to eat the frozen items so quickly! Thank you

  5. I cut my apples into slices and lightly sprinkle with cinnamon. Not sure why, but the apple doesn’t turn brown, not even the parts that don’t have cinnamon. Item 4 is spot on, eat a variety of foods and you don’t have to worry about numbers. BTW, I have no small kids but got hooked on real/minimally processed food from reading your blog and cookbook.

  6. Pineapple juice is the perfect method to prevent apples from browning. I buy organic and place about 1 cup into Tupperware container, I then mix in about 1/4 cup water to cut intensity. The pineapple juice does not change the taste of the apples in any way. I slice the apples and place in juice while preparing the rest of the lunch. 2-3 minutes is all you need. I then pat dry with paper towel for fear of apples turning soggy. Tupperware container goes in fridge, reused for a week, then discarded.

  7. To keep apples from turning brown, the easiest thing to do is put a few drops of apple juice instead of citrus. This way your apples don’t taste lemony or salty.

  8. My 10yo daughter has been taking “salad” in here lunch everyday for the past couple weeks. I use quotes with “salad” because its really just chopped up veggies (no lettuce)…she takes a hard boiled egg along or some sliced lunch (organic) with also.

    My sister in law asked me what kind of dressing we use since she knows we don’t do processed foods anymore. I said “none”…she couldn’t understand how my kids would eat salad without dressing! I giggled a little and said that veggies (especially chopped up small and tossed together) have wonderful flavors of their own! ;) My daughter hasn’t once asked for “dressing” since we started this. Win one for Real foods!