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Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I used to bring my lunch to school. Invariably tucked inside my “Peanuts” lunchbox was a sandwich, a few carrot sticks, a piece of fruit, and a couple of home-made cookies, usually oatmeal. Although I loved oatmeal cookies, I’d been seduced by TV commercials and would covet the unmistakable cylinders of aluminum foil emerging from my classmates’ Barbie lunchboxes, containing little frosted, cream-filled cakes known as Ho-Hos.  Although my mother had nothing against sugar or chocolate, she was far too sensible to buy the wrapped and preservative-laden delights. Little did I know that her dismissive attitude toward corporate food would someday make it easier for me to champion Cool Foods.

The final countdown to the school year has begun, so it’s time to snap out of my grade-school reverie and devise a climate-friendly strategy for school lunch.  I’ve learned a few tips worth sharing with the uninitiated, or with those seeking fresh insight into the daily encounter with the lunchbox. Begin by keeping the five Cool Foods principles in mind when you go grocery shopping.

What are those five Cool Foods principles again, you ask?

1) Eat fresh, unprocessed foods
2) Buy local and in-season
3) Choose organic
4) Reduce meat and dairy consumption
5) Plan head to prevent food waste

Let’s put them into practice! I usually start by grabbing a piece of fruit. We keep bowls of fruit on the kitchen counter, so within seconds I’m no longer staring at an empty lunchbox. It may amaze you to discover that most kids love fresh, ripe fruit. It’s delicious, nutritious, easy-to-eat, and low waste. In the coming fall and winter months, organic apples are a tried-and-true choice, and a good staple to have on hand. When winter rolls around, along come mandarin or navel oranges cut in wedges. But variety is not just the spice of life—it’s a critical must-have for the lunchbox chef. Seek other in-season fruits for a lunchbox that’s “cooler” for your kid and the earth!

With the easiest part of the lunch out of the way, I move to the all-important sandwich. I start by toasting the bread, and while the toaster is humming along I consider the filling. I try to keep a variety of nut butters on hand, as well as jams and honey to mix and match. There’s almond butter and raspberry jam. Peanut butter and whipped honey. Sunflower butter and grape jelly. The great news? Variations on the classic PB&J are almost limitless. (Stay informed on your school guidelines for nut allegories, which can be an issue.)

Now, students don’t live on PB&J alone, and this is where planning ahead can save time, money, and stress. Egg salad is delicious, economical, and I’d say, under-appreciated. I like adding grainy mustard for a little zip and spreading it on toasted rye bread. A sandwich of this caliber can cost $7.00 at the deli, but you can make it for a fraction of that at home. Also in the “you’ll-be-glad-you-planned-ahead” department are humus and pesto. Both are simple to make, economical (using walnuts instead of pine nuts in the pesto), and long-lasting. Top humus with a few slices of red pepper, or cucumber and crisp lettuce for a colorful, tasty sandwich. My kids are certified pesto fiends, so this bright green paste is my secret weapon (i.e. a painless way to get kids to eat leafy greens). If you buy sandwich meats, like turkey or ham, be sure to look for the “nitrate-free” label, and be mindful of the amount that you use. Two or three slices should be more than enough, depending on the age of your child.

Don’t forget to get a little feedback from the one who knows best about lunchboxes. Ask your child how much they really eat, so that portions of your lovingly prepared lunches don’t wind up in the nearest schoolyard trash can. Avoiding food waste is a back-to-school priority in my family: good for the planet, and for household budgets!

Cheese and crackers is a nutritious option, too, but avoid the pre-packaged stuff. My son loves Jarlsburg cheese, so I’ll buy a wedge at Trader Joe’s and cut it up into manageable squares and throw in some crackers. Almost as easy as grabbing fruit from the bowl!

Finally, there should be a treat! I opt for something salty or sweet. Maybe a few squares of dark chocolate or dried cranberries, maybe a slice of banana bread. Occasionally, if they’re really lucky, there will be a few of those home-made oatmeal cookies I used to take for granted—I may even pack an extra to share with covetous classmates.

Diana Donlon is the director of the Center for Food Safety’s Cool Foods Campaign.  For additional ideas on how to fill the lunch-box be sure to check out Cool Foods on Pinterest!

This post is part of the MomsRising "Making the School Day Healthier" Blog Carnival headlined by Top Chef Lorena Garcia."

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