If your child is headed back into the classroom this fall, consider these simple tips for sending them with a healthy packed lunch. Plus, see our shopping list essentials for safely heading back to school.

Carolyn A. Hodges, R.D.
August 19, 2020
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There's no doubt about it, back-to-school planning looks a whole lot different this year. In the past we'd be curious who our kids' teachers will be, shopping for new gym shoes and picking up tubs of sanitizing wipes to satisfy school supply lists without worrying about product shortages. This year, most families have spent the summer wondering whether their school will reopen in the fall at all.

While many families will be starting off the school year remotely, others are planning a return to school either full-time or following a blended schedule. If your child is headed back into the classroom in some capacity, you likely have questions about, well, everything. While you should always refer to the policies and guidelines established by your school, here are our recommendations for packing a healthy school lunch in the midst of COVID-19 (plus a simple checklist for some other backpack essentials).

Tips for Packing a Healthy School Lunch During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Pictured recipe: Rainbow Bento Lunch for Kids

Go with fuss-free packaging and containers

Whether students are eating at their desks, outside or spaced apart at tables, aim to make them as self-sufficient as possible when it comes to opening packages and containers at lunchtime. This will minimize the need for assistance from teachers and staff as schools prioritize limited close contact. Pack packaged foods or reusable containers you know they can open on their own. Consider a fully-insulated lunch box to keep foods cool throughout the morning.

Buy it! PackIt Freezable Classic Lunch Box, amazon.com, $20

Skip the potentially messy foods

Any foods that can easily spill or end up all over kids' hands are best avoided for now. Depending on the age of the child, certain foods like soups or saucy pastas packed in thermoses, diced fruit cups in juice and yogurt cups may be prone to spillage. If students are eating at their desks in the classroom, teachers will appreciate not having to wipe up desktops and floors.

Stick with familiar, well-liked foods

The back-to-school experience in a COVID-19 world is challenging and unfamiliar for everyone, especially kids. This probably isn't the best time to surprise them with new foods in their lunchbox. Instead, pack their favorites and involve them in the meal planning process. Consider a prep-ahead lunch station so kids can pick and choose what sounds good that day (this will also help streamline the morning routine).

Keep nutritious foods in mind

With the state of things, no one is expected to be on their A-game when it comes to packing a picture-perfect lunch that checks all the nutrition boxes. Parents should be flexible and realistic as we transition into this back-to-school season. When it's possible, consider packing a variety of foods with immune-supporting nutrients, like vitamins C and D, zinc and protein, and try to keep added sugars to a minimum. Good, simple options include peeled orange segments, sliced bell pepper, yogurt pouches, turkey sandwiches and shelled edamame.

Back-to-School Essentials During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In addition to the usual supplies like boxes of fresh crayons and no. 2 pencils, parents may want to consider the following items for the start of the school year.

Cubcoats

Kids Face Masks

Have kids wear their mask around the house before school starts to ensure they can tolerate it for a few hours at a time. Encourage them to practice putting it on and taking it off. Pack a back-up mask and a labeled bag or container to store their mask when not in use.

Face Mask Lanyard

Kids will be removing masks throughout the school day to eat and drink. Consider a lanyard (with a breakaway clip) to keep them from dropping or misplacing their mask.

Buy it! 9-Piece Adjustable Mask Lanyard, amazon.com, $15

nammebubbles.com

Multi-Purpose Labels

Now more than ever it's important to label everything, from face masks to water bottles and lunch containers. These labels can be personalized and are dishwasher- and laundry-safe.

Buy it! NameBubbles.com, $38 for 89 labels

amazon.com

Thermometer

Many schools will be requiring temperature checks both at home and upon arrival at the school building. A temporal thermometer will make morning temp checks at home quick and easy.

Buy it! Vigorun Forehead/Ear Infared Digital Thermometer, amazon.com, $40 (orig. $50)

amazon.com

Reusable Water Bottle

Schools will likely discourage public use of water fountains and instead encourage students to bring refillable water bottles. Consider a water bottle with a covered mouthpiece.

Buy it! Thermos Blue Funtainer 12 Ounce Bottle, amazon.com, $12 (orig. $15)

amazon.com

Hand Sanitizer Backpack Clip

Consider attaching a bottle of hand sanitizer to kids' backpacks for when washing with soap and water isn't possible. Note: CDC recommends hand sanitizers be kept out of reach from those under 6 years of age.

Buy it! DARUNAXY Refillable Mini Hand Sanitizer Bottles, amazon.com, $16.00 for 6