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Dr. Fernstrom: 7 healthy (and fun) back-to-school lunch hacks

These tips don’t take much time or money — and only a little pre-planning.
NBC News Health editor Madelyn Fernstrom, left, talks to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.
NBC News Health editor Madelyn Fernstrom, left, talks to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.Miller Hawkins

The perfectly packed lunch is one your child looks forward to eating — and won’t trade away! While that can seem like a daily daunting challenge, there are lots of easy ways to make the midday meal a fun and positive experience for the whole family. Many of these ideas can also serve as “double duty” lunches — that work for kids and adults.

1. Involve your kids

Talk to your children about their lunchtime food preferences, and take some pressure off yourself. Often, kids don’t seek variety, and aren’t bored by the same foods day after day. But you always want to add some color – with fruits and/or vegetables – and one snack/treat food per lunch. Set aside a pantry shelf or drawer for a snack or treat food from which your child can choose a portion-controlled (around 100 calories) snack or treat each day like pretzels, chips, cookies or a granola bar. Keep a fridge drawer filled with fresh fruit and cut up veggies, as well as reduced-fat cheese sticks and low-sugar yogurts as options.

2. Keep it Cold

For both food safety and style, take a look at the PackIt series of kid-friendly lunch bags. The bags are lined with non-removeable gel, and you freeze the whole bag overnight. You don’t need an all-in-one bag though: Soak a clean sponge in water (squeeze out the extra), place is a zip-lock bag, and freeze. Or, freeze single-serve drinks like water, yogurt or milk (skip the juice) that will be thawed out by lunchtime.

3. Divide it up

For those who enjoy a little bit of everything in a lunch, try a Bento-box style lunchbox, or just plastic containers with mini compartments that seal completely. You can also use cupcake liners in a single compartment plastic container to keep all foods separate. Mix and match your child’s favorites.

4. Put it on a stick

A quick and easy way to reinvent simple foods is to thread them on wooden skewers. Cheese and meat can be alternated, or try a veggie skewer (grape tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and peppers – whatever your child prefers), or the ever popular fruit kabob.

5. Vary the bread

While we put a lot of thought of what goes between the bread, try different types like whole wheat mini pitas, multigrain sandwich, bagel thins or slider rolls. Take a soft tortilla, with a filling of your choice, roll it up, and cut it into slices. Even the same filling takes on a new spin by varying the bread. Surprise your child by cutting a sandwich or a slice of cheese with their favorite cookie cutter shape. Or, try making mini-sandwiches with small cookie cutters.

6. Skip the sogginess

Triple layer sandwiches can prevent soggy bread – icky looking and tasting. It’s easy to fix by creating a triple layer sandwich. For example, with peanut butter (or other spreads), put a thin layer on each slice of bread, with the jelly or other wet ingredient in the middle. You can also do this with two thin slice of cheese as a moisture barrier.

7. Write a note

Put a short note in the lunchbox to connect with your child during the day. It doesn’t need to be fancy or long – a post-it note works great. You can write a bunch of them at once and leave them in your kitchen drawer.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.