FOOD WISE: Involve the kids when preparing healthy sack lunches for school



Moms of Liberty Hill….rejoice! It’s time for back-to-school.

Join with me in song. “School days, school days. Good ‘ol golden rule days.”

If you’re like me, you looked forward to the summer break. But now, we’ve all had our trips to the beach and maybe Grandma’s house. (Oh wait, that’s me!) The kids have been to summer camp and VBS. They’ve played in the water sprinklers (but only on your designated watering time). They’ve had their numerous trips to the pool, the creek and the library. But let’s face it….we’re done! Come on…admit it! They are driving you outta your ever lovin’ mind and you can’t wait for school to start. I’m right there with you. Shoot, they are getting on each other’s nerves as much as they are getting on mine.

Is it just me, or are you up to your armpits in new backpacks, school supplies and sneakers, and that just-right-for-the-first day outfit, too? When I was raising my kids and step-kids, it only seemed expensive compared to outfitting my grandboys now. The list of stuff they have to have just to go to school really blows my mind.

So, there I am, every Wednesday and Sunday, scoping out the sales and coupons so I can pick up whatever supplies may be on sale that week. At least that allows me to spread out the expense over a few weeks. Besides the area newspapers, some of my favorite websites for coupons and deals are and

Speaking of expenses, let’s talk school lunches. Now, there are a lot of things I don’t really know much about. But after raising, helping to raise, taking care of or otherwise influencing my kids and step-kids, their friends, my friends’ kids, relatives’ kids, neighborhood kids and now grandkids, I’ve figured out a thing or two about getting kids to eat properly, packing a good, healthy and inexpensive school lunch, and getting the whole process organized so that it’s almost an automated system.

The first step is to get the kids involved. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it. If they make it, they will eat it. This also works with letting them help choose what they’ll pack in their lunch. Of course, you’ll need to set parameters. They shouldn’t be allowed to choose all candy, chips and the like. The goal is to get them to eat healthier. On the other hand, you won’t achieve your goal if all they get is salad and vegetables every day. If they are used to eating a lot of junk, start with baby steps.

A fruit salad with some agave or honey for sweetener is a good start. Its sweet enough they will enjoy eating it, but it’s a healthier option than, say, a fruit roll up. Toss in some toasted coconut for texture and pistachios for crunch and extra protein. They will certainly stay full longer and not be bouncing off the walls from artificial colorings, chemicals and sugars. If you let them make the fruit salad themselves, they will most likely think it’s the most wonderful food they’ve ever had.

A lot of nutritionists and cooks say to take the children to the grocery store so they can help pick the things they want in their lunches. For me, I find that to be a difficult proposition for a couple of reasons. First, all of the choices in the whole wide grocery store world are overwhelming for them. Second, a full on trip to the grocery store, one where I need to do a lot of shopping, with three little boys in tow leaves me feeling like I’ve earned a vacation at the local funny farm.

Instead, I put together a list of kid approved lunch choices that they pick from. Once they pick what they want, I shop for it and then we all put the lunches together at home.

Another helpful thing to do is get organized so you can easily and quickly put together the lunches ahead of time. I recommend picking up a few supplies to keep on hand. Of course, the kids will want a super cool lunchbox. Letting them pick a super cool lunchbox is another key to getting to want to eat what’s inside. Just be sure it has the features you want before you agree to those little doe-eyed puhleeze’s.

It should ideally be insulated to help keep the lunch at a safe temperature until lunchtime. You probably also want it to be easy to clean. Spills and sticky jelly inside the lunch pack is inevitable. Older kids will also need a little larger pack to accommodate their more grown up appetites. I like it to have enough room to tuck in one of those refreezable cold packs to help maintain temps until lunch. Be sure to label everything, including the cold packs. Kids are notorious about leaving stuff behind.

Now, for what to pack the food in. Of course, there are good old-fashioned zip type bags and those are good for a lot of things. I don’t personally care for them for school lunches because everything gets crushed once the child puts the lunch in their backpack, where they promptly forget about it and lean back or sit on it.

You can find all sorts of great hard plastic containers that are suitable for packing a lunch at any major discount store or dollar store. Be sure whatever you pick is easy to clean, durable and BPA free.

One of my favorite storage containers is available at The Container Store. It is plastic and when you unsnap it, you’ll see that it is folded in half. One side is sandwich or salad sized and has a separator lid that separates the contents of that section from the contents of the other side. On the other side, the container is sub-divided into three sections for other accompaniments like fruit, condiments or dessert. Easy breezy!

While you’re at it, I’d also pick up some plastic bins for storage. I got mine at a dollar store. I have a couple in the freezer, one for yogurt and one for sandwiches. Yes, I keep sandwiches in the freezer. More about that in a minute.

I also have five bins with three compartments each. Since I have three boys to get lunches ready for and five days a week of school, this works out great. I keep them in the refrigerator with lunch items in each one for each day. I got this tip from a website called

If you’ve read my column very much, you know I’m big on stuff I can do-ahead. School lunches are no exception.

Remember how I talked about getting the kids involved? Here’s a great way to do that. I usually pick a weekend day or evening and put together all the lunches for the whole week. If you assembly line it, it really doesn’t take very long. Here’s where the kiddos come in. I give each one a job in getting the lunches ready and we do it together. They are so proud of the lunch they made and we get time together to talk about important top-secret stuff.

One thing I really try to do is vary the contents of the lunch each day so they don’t get bored and stuck in a rut. I want them to eat a wide variety of foods. Try to make it fun. Maybe you could make a personal pizza on a pita and “draw” funny faces on it with the veggies. Or how about grilled chicken strips, which are great served cold, with all the fixings to make their own chef type salad. Turkey, cheese and whole wheat cracker stackers are fun and they eat it because they think the name is funny. Use your inner child imagination.

So let me break it down for you. The yogurt goes in a bin in the freezer. On the days they get yogurt, I take it out of the freezer in the morning and toss it in the lunch. By lunchtime it’s thawed and at just the right temperature.

Remember those freezer sandwiches? That was another online tip, but I don’t remember from where. What makes a made-ahead sandwich soggy is the “wet” ingredients on the bread. So, if I’m making PB&J, I lightly peanut butter each slice of bread as a barrier and spread the jelly in between. Then I wrap the sandwich in a paper towel, insert in a freezer bag and put it in the freezer bin. If you are making a meat and cheese sandwich, put the mayo, mustard or ketchup between the meat and cheese. All the other things like juice boxes, granola bars and fruit goes into the three section bins in the fridge. In the mornings, you can just grab a sandwich, yogurt and cold pack from the freezer and the contents of one bin from the fridge for each lunch and you’re all set.

I hope these tips help make your mornings a little smoother. I’ve included a recipe for my guys’ favorite easy pasta lunch. So super easy Nate and Brendan make it themselves sometimes. I’d love to hear about any school lunch tips you find helpful as well.

Chef Reneé is a classically trained, award winning chef and columnist. She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats and chickens.

 Chef Reneé’s Kitchen Sink Pasta


Gourmet tomatoes and chicken penne pasta in a pesto sauce.
(Courtesy Photo)

Just use anything in your pantry in this dish. That’s why it’s called “kitchen sink.” It’s also good warm or cold.

Makes enough for about 10 kid sized servings.

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks

1-2 tablespoons olive oil

Half a yellow onion, chopped

Third of a bag of frozen baby lima beans

1 cup any kind shredded cheese

1 tomato, roughly chopped

Half a box of rotini pasta, cooked according to package directions

3 tablespoons ready-made pesto sauce

Half-cup mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in sauté pan until just beginning to smoke. Sauté chicken until golden brown. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

2. Add onion to pan and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Remove to a large bowl.

3. Add lima beans to pasta cooking water during the last 3 minutes of pasta cooking time. Drain and add to the bowl with the onions. Add the cooled chicken, tomato and shredded cheese to the bowl.

4. Whisk together the mayo and pesto and toss thoroughly with the chicken and pasta mixture. Chill or serve immediately.