The further they stay away from that cafeteria food, the better!
As many families prepare for the start of school, the Internet abounds with advice on how to pack lunches for young kids. But what about teens? These older students are bottomless pits of appetite and need good nourishment more than ever, but often they get away with subsisting on cheap pizza and hot dogs from the school cafeteria. Instead of settling for sub-standard meals, start the year off right by sitting down with your teen for a chat about why good nutrition matters, how packing a lunch can help, and what your joint plan is for doing that.
First, explain to your teen the benefits of bringing lunch from home. There's the obvious nutritional advantage -- fresh ingredients, homemade food, and plenty of it for ravenous growing bodies. You don't have to wait in a line, you'll have more time to socialize while eating, and you'll generate less waste.
Then there are the financial considerations. Cafeteria lunches add up over time, and for parents concerned about raising financially literate kids, it's logical to expect a kid to save that money and take advantage of ingredients available at home instead. Do some calculations to figure out how much could be saved each year. You could agree to a single bought lunch per week to satisfy that greasy fry craving.
Second, come up with a plan for lunches. Ask your teen to come shopping with you on weekends to buy ingredients for their lunches. The more involvement they have in the process, the more inclined they'll be to eat the food they pack, but it's something you'll still want to oversee as a parent to ensure they're getting what they need. Figure out a schedule to make it work, whether you do lunch prep together for an hour on Sunday evenings or make it part of daily dinner cleanup. Avoiding the morning scramble is always sensible, as teens are notorious for their sluggishness at that time of day!
Invest in a lunch bag or box that is sufficiently 'cool' for your teen to carry. Get their input when making this purchase. Similarly, get reusable containers that they like and will not feel self-conscious about, such as a stainless steel Bento box, glass containers, or mason jars. Buy a small thermos in which to pack hot leftovers. Lots of great options here at the Life Without Plastic online store and ECOlunchbox.
Next, create a list of lunch ideas. Explain the importance of having a variety of foods; three is a good number to start, i.e. one main, one fruit/vegetable, one snack. Every teen will have different preferences, but going for the healthier homemade versions of whatever food they might purchase in the cafeteria or neighboring fast food joints is a fairly safe bet. This could be tacos or taco salad, bean burritos, wraps packed with veggies, hummus, and avocado, pita sandwiches, chili, and homemade pizza.
Other teens might prefer a selection of appetizer-like foods that add up to a meal, like tortilla chips and salsa, veggies with bean dip, homemade popcorn, cheese and crackers, little meatballs or falafels with tzatziki for dipping. If you have a healthy eater, pack big salads with dressing in a mini jar or bean/grain bowls in a bento box. This list of lunch ideas from Bon Appétit will have your mouth watering in no time.
Teens are natural snackers, so load them up with those. TreeHugger's editor Melissa said she packs "the usual suspects" for her kids to snack on throughout their long school day -- fruit, raw vegetables, nuts, rice crackers, hummus, homemade granola bars, homemade oatmeal cookies. She also sends big chia puddings with fruit and nuts in a jar and wholewheat wraps made with veggies/salad/hummus/avocado. Her advice:
"I often plan dinners based on leftover potential for the next day's lunch. And when cleaning up after dinner, I pack the leftovers directly into their lunch boxes."
Finally, be a good example. Teens are acutely aware of their parents' actions and if you're too busy to bother packing a frugal and nutritious lunch for yourself each day, it's hardly fair to expect the same of them. Model the kind of behavior you want to see in them, and they'll be more willing to go along with it.
Teens may be on the cusp of adulthood but they still need guidance when it comes to choosing the right foods to fuel their physical growth and academic work. As I see it, the years are short in which to establish lifelong eating habits, and if you can influence these positively as a parent throughout the impressionable high school years, you'll be doing your kid a great favor.