What to pack for a perfect back-to-school lunch during COVID-19

Like everything else, lunch at school is going to look different this fall.

In order to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, most schools aren’t allowing kids to share food — which means fun lunches won’t be happening for awhile, there won’t be vending machines, and canteens and high school cafeterias are on hold for a bit.

In lunchrooms, students will understandably no longer have the ability to reheat their meals in a shared microwave.

But perhaps the biggest challenge school staff and students will face is co-ordinating lunch breaks, and managing hundreds of kids going to the cafeteria at the same time, having their masks off to eat.

Some schools will reduce large groups by staggering lunch breaks, and others plan to allot several small ones throughout the day, rather than the traditional hour at lunchtime.

So, what to pack?

For kids who may have more frequent, shorter breaks, it might be useful to fill lunch boxes with items they can graze on through the day — small bites of things they like to eat. This can include cheese, grape tomatoes, onigiri (rice balls), flatbread or falafel.

Packing meals comprised of small bites, such as these falafel balls, allow kids of all ages to participate in making or assembling their lunch. (Julie Van Rosdenaal)

Kids of all ages can participate in making or assembling their lunch, and having them choose what they get increases the chances they’ll actually eat it.

Planning for leftovers at dinner can take care of lunch the next day if you have a thermos, or make something that’s fine to eat at room temperature.

It may be wise to pack a small bottle of hand sanitizer, or make a meal that requires a fork or chopsticks to eat so kids aren’t directly handling their food.

  • Listen to Julie Van Rosendaal’s full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener below for pantry staples and tricks for when you’re missing an ingredient.

While frequent handwashing will undoubtedly be encouraged, it could take a long time to funnel kids through bathrooms to thoroughly wash their hands for 20 seconds before lunch.

And don’t forget to pack a refillable water bottle, as public fountains are a no-go.

If school is happening at home, lunchtime provides a great learning opportunity for all ages — it’s a built-in foods course! It’s impossible to not learn something in the kitchen.

Following a recipe is good reading practice, measuring involves math and fractions, and there are elements of science and problem-solving.

Following a recipe is good reading practice for kids, the measuring involves math and fractions, and there are elements of science and problem-solving. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

It’s also an opportunity to take a break and try a different cooking technique each day, or have kids research and try ingredients and dishes from a culture they’re unfamiliar with.

Whether you’re staying home or packing lunch to go, no-bake energy balls are simple to blitz together in the food processor using soft dried fruit, nut butters (or tahini, or a nut-free golden pea butter like Wowbutter), coconut, cocoa and dry oats.

They won’t crumble in transport and keep well in a container on the countertop to nibble all week long.

Add nut butters and seeds to your food processor to quickly mix together energy balls. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Energy Balls

Measurements here are very flexible. The goal is to aim for a mixture that will hold together when you squeeze it. These are perfect for little hands to roll.

Add ingredients to your food processor and mix together. If the mixture is too dry, add a bit more nut or seed butter or the sticky stuff. If it’s too sticky, add more oats, nuts or seeds.

  • 1 cup soft pitted dates, apricots and/or figs.
  • ½-1 cup walnuts, pecans or other soft nuts.
  • 1/3 cup peanut butter, Wowbutter or tahini.
  • ¼-½ cup seeds (sunflower, flax, sesame, pumpkin).
  • ¼ cup coconut (optional).
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa.
  • 2 tbsp. honey or maple syrup.
  • a shake of cinnamon, if you like.
  • a pinch of salt.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the dried fruit with the nuts, peanut butter, seeds, coconut, cocoa, honey, cinnamon and salt until well blended and the mixture holds together when you squeeze it.

Roll into 1½-inch balls and store in a sealed container at room temperature.

Makes: about 1 dozen balls.

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