As the start of school approaches, the apprehension begins to build.

Oh, sure, the kids are feeling it. But what about their parents, hoping desperately that something more nutritious than a fistful of Starbursts will pass their offspring's lips sometime before dinner?

Even with arm-long lists of suggestions and creative hacks, there's no escaping the stress of preparing 180 lunches throughout the school year.

Hectic schedules or even a lost top to a thermos can derail the best of plans and make getting a healthy lunch into kids seem next to impossible.

The easiest answer is to let your kid eat the lunch served at school. But it may not be the answer that best fits your family's needs.

Many children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs. In the Philadelphia School District, both lunch and breakfast are free to all students.

For students in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs who don't fall into that category, parents can fund a school lunch account. In both states, a full-priced high school lunch costs about $3.

Nancy McGuire, of Havertown, thought she had everything under control when it came to lunch options for her two daughters, now 11 and 14, whom she described as picky eaters. Then the letter from Haverford Township School District arrived, outlining a list of foods that could trigger allergic reactions in their classmates.

"Everything my kids eat is on this list," she said.

McGuire didn't want to risk getting another child sick, so she opted to have her kids buy lunch at school.

"It is totally worth it for me to fund a school lunch account, and they can pick out what they want to eat," McGuire said.

The added benefit was that her children tried foods at school that they had rejected at home, such as tacos.

Katy Ruckdeschel, center, fixes a healthy lunch for her two daughters, Calla McVail, 8, left, and Lindsay McVail, 12, right, in their home in Lower Merion.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Katy Ruckdeschel, center, fixes a healthy lunch for her two daughters, Calla McVail, 8, left, and Lindsay McVail, 12, right, in their home in Lower Merion.

But what if you have to pack a lunch? Who has time to pull off those online photos of star-shaped apple slices neatly portioned out into trendy Bento boxes?

"Literally, you dread it," said Katy Ruckdeschel, a Lower Merion mother of two daughters. "The night before you tell yourself I should do it right now, and then you don't. The morning comes, and it is a scramble to get everyone out the door."

We talked to Philly-area parents to find out how they successfully navigate brown-bag lunches.

Plan ahead

Managing the madness — or at least getting a running start — requires planning, said Emily Rubin, a registered dietitian at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, and mother of 12-year-old twin boys.

Make a list, and don't go to the store hungry, said Rubin. She suggests bringing the kids to a farmers' market or produce stand to make an activity out of it.

Five essentials should go into every school lunch – lean protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetable, and dairy, said Megan Robinson, a clinical nutritionist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

A healthy lunch of tofurky sandwiches, broccoli, and kale, made by Katy Ruckdeschel for her two daughters.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A healthy lunch of tofurky sandwiches, broccoli, and kale, made by Katy Ruckdeschel for her two daughters.

To involve the kids, she suggests letting them pick within each category. Kids can choose between chicken, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, and yogurt for protein. Bread, crackers, rice, and pasta are good options for whole grains.

"It is about having kids take a little more ownership and learning about nutrition," Robinson said.

Pick one day a week to batch-cook and prepare the meal. Using a crock pot makes it easy. Muffin tins can be used to make perfect portions of egg, sweet potato, oatmeal, or vegetable muffins. To save more time, use rotisserie chicken, steam-in-a-bag vegetables or rice, and pre-washed salad mix.

Make it a team effort

By age 7 or 8, children can participate in school lunch preparations. By middle school, they should be making lunch on their own.

If they pack it, they will most likely eat it, Rubin said.

Jenn McCreary, of South Philadelphia, tried this approach to deal with her sons' particular palate.

McCreary recalled when one of her now-14-year-old twins at Science Leadership Academy would eat only fruit, cheese, and bread for lunch.

"It was like he was French. Again with the baguette?" she said. "You can make yourself crazy wondering when was the last time he ate something green."

Now she stocks her fridge with "lunch legos," containers of carrots, celery, hard-boiled eggs, pasta, and other favorites. She preps them the same day she shops so they are ready for her boys to grab and go.

"They are responsible for putting their own lunch together based on those pieces," McCreary said. Once the preparation is done, all that is left is a bit of guidance to make sure they remember a protein, take just one sweet, or pack an energy bar if they have a long day, she said.

Jenn McCreary, 45, of South Philly, selects peaches with her twin boys just entering high school, Caleb (left) and Malcolm at the Farmer’s Market at Passyunk Avenue and Tasker Street.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Jenn McCreary, 45, of South Philly, selects peaches with her twin boys just entering high school, Caleb (left) and Malcolm at the Farmer’s Market at Passyunk Avenue and Tasker Street.

Stephen Gibson and his wife, Kimberly, of Broomall, also split the lunch chores with their two sons, Jakob, 15, and David, 14. She shops, he preps, and they pack, Gibson said.

Gibson, who describes himself as a "big guy," said he didn't want his kids, who attend Haverford High School, to worry about weight, so packing a nutritional lunch was essential. Lunch is usually yogurt, a lunch meat or peanut butter and jelly sandwich along with fruit, a snack, and a drink. As a rule, the boys get up early, which helps avert any last-minute crunch, he said.

Bring in reinforcements

Try teaming up with a friend or family in the neighborhood to share lunch responsibilities.

Have one parent prepare a week's worth of lunches for both families, then have the other parent handle the next week.

Or outsource the job to a professional.

Mike Hays from JPM Catering serving lunches at Friends School Haverford last November.
Lisa Buscaglia, Friends School Haverford
Mike Hays from JPM Catering serving lunches at Friends School Haverford last November.

Ruckdeschel was at a neighborhood fair in Narberth when she approached Joe Petrucci, of JPM catering, with the notion of providing healthy school lunches at the Friends School Haverford, where her two girls attend.

The program is now in four area private schools, Petrucci said.

JPM uses online ordering, for which parents can pick any number of days and even decide the night before they want the lunch. For about $6.25, the kids get mostly organic and locally sourced homemade foods in compostable packaging. Menu options include broccoli-goat cheese frittata with orange slices and a chocolate chip cookie; coconut shrimp with sweet potatoes and peas and an oatmeal raisin cookie; or roasted chicken leg, mashed potatoes, and ginger cake for lunch.

A wintertime school lunch from JPM Catering – fried chicken, waffle and roasted apple.
Handout
A wintertime school lunch from JPM Catering – fried chicken, waffle and roasted apple.

"It keeps our kitchen busy throughout the school year," said Petrucci, who handles the business end while his wife, Jennifer McCafferty, runs the kitchen. They make about 100 meals a day for the schools.

Ruckdeschel orders twice a week and says her kids are "enthusiastic consumers" of the lunch options.

For her, it was all about peace of mind.

Is there something that works best for you? Send us a short explanation at health@philly.com. Some responses may appear on Philly.com.