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SIU “food nerd” takes the stress out of packing lunches as a new school year begins

Woman preparing lunch
Provided by Christie Mathis
Niki Davis, SIU Carbondale’s Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, demonstrates stress-free lunch preparation.

CARBONDALE, Ill. — It’s back-to-school season and, along with shopping for clothes and school supplies, many parents again find themselves encountering that stressful task of packing lunches to please the picky palates of their kiddos. The stress escalates with multiple children and multiple preferences, but fear not as Niki Davis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program manager and professor of practice, can help.

Davis offers eight tips to make to make lunch prepping easier and sure to please kids and parents alike.

  • Plan and prep ahead. If you are normally a meal planner, this comes naturally. Regardless, take time to plan lunches just like you do family dinners. Add lunch ingredients to your grocery list and spend a few minutes each Sunday preparing what you can for the week. Cut up vegetables, place dips in small containers, and portion out chips or crackers in food-safe containers. Even taking care of little tasks like this in advance will save time during the week, especially on those all-too-busy mornings.
  • Use leftovers wisely. As you plan dinners for the week, think about how you can remake leftovers into school lunches (or even for your work lunch). Leftover chicken can be transformed into chicken salad sandwiches or a green leaf salad with diced chicken. Leftover roasted veggies can easily become vegetable soup. This is not only quick, convenient and tasty, but it also reduces food waste.
  • Involve your kids. Whom better to engage than the one who is going to be eating the lunch? Ask your child for preferences and suggestions to ensure they enjoy their meals and aren’t throwing away what you pack. Ask again in a few months – preferences do change from time to time. Have them help you with age-appropriate tasks. Having a sense of involvement, ownership and pride may just encourage them to eat better. Teenagers benefit from helping with the full planning and shopping process, too.
  • Balance the meal. Healthy lunches provide needed energy for kids to get through their school day. As you plan, work toward a balanced lunch that includes protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats.
  • Keep it colorful. Who wants to eat a whole plate full of beige food? Add a variety of fruits and vegetables to make lunch visually appealing and nutritionally rich. Pasta salads are a great way to incorporate different veggies. They’re easy to pack into single-serve containers, too.
  • Invest in good containers. Reusable, eco-friendly containers keep food fresh and prevent spills that get other food soggy or sticky. Plastic bags may be easier but reusable containers are better for the environment and can save you money in the long run, so it’s a win-win. Think about the foods your child typically eats for lunch, then purchase containers accordingly. A bento box works great for keeping portions separated.
  • Pack easy-to-eat foods. Finger foods, pre-cut fruits, favorite sandwiches sliced in quarters and bite-sized snacks are easy for your child to eat on the go. Also, consider reheating or refrigeration needs. Invest in a good lunchbox to help keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
  • Offer some treats. While it’s great to focus on nutritious foods, it’s OK to include a small treat to make lunchtime more enjoyable. Fun-sized candy bars are a great option for non-baker families. If you like to bake, think about mini-muffins or cookie bars cut into small sizes.

As the madness of a new school year begins, these tips can make preparing school lunches little bit easier and hopefully encourage the kids to enjoy lunchtime even more.
Here’s a tasty recipe to try.

Wagon Wheel Pasta Salad

Yield: 6-8 servings

Time: 20 minutes


  • 8 ounces rotelle pasta (wagon wheels)
  • 1 cup Italian vinaigrette
  • 1½ cups grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 package (8 ounces) Mozzarella pearls
  • 1 package (5 ounces) mini pepperoni
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 can (10 ounces) whole black olives, drained
  • 1 jar (4 ounces) pimientos

Directions: Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain and let cool. Pour the vinaigrette into a mixing bowl, then add the pasta and toss to coat. This will let the pasta begin to soak up some of the flavor from the vinaigrette. Add the remaining ingredients and toss together.

Tip: This is a great side dish for a family dinner, with plenty left over for a few lunches.


Christi Mathis — student affairs; diversity, equity and inclusion; business and analytics; education; health and human sciences; psychological and behavioral sciences; innovation and economic development; international education.

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