A Lunchtime Education

Here are six ways to build a deli back-to-school destination.

Carol M. Bareuther

Packing lunches for back-to-school is nothing new. In fact, school lunch menus and tips for preparing these kid-friendly mobile meals first appeared in American cookbooks at the end of the 19th century, according to an entry titled ‘A survey of home-made American school lunches through time’ on foodtimeline.org.

By the 20th century, lunch boxes filled with evening meal leftovers that reflected the family’s heritage gave way to a more ‘melting pot’ meal plan that consisted of a sandwich, fruit, dessert and drink. Today, parents still find themselves time-starved and idea-challenged when it comes to packing their children’s back-to-school fare. That’s where the supermarket deli can step in to help by positioning itself as a solution center for parents.

“Nothing says lunch like the deli,” says Anne Nelson, senior manager for deli marketing at Reser’s Fine Foods, headquartered in Beaverton, OR. “This is the store section consumers already trust for classic, fresh lunch staples. Pairing suggestions, combo deals and strong visual displays can help encourage browsing and inspire creativity in what is usually a stressful time of year.”

Catering to the back-to-school crowd can certainly be worth it for the deli. Consider that some 56.3 million students are projected to return to the classroom this fall, according to December 2019-released figures from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Subtract the 29.6 million K-12 students who participate in the National School Lunch Program, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture Fiscal-Year 2019 data, and this results in some 26.7 million students who presumably bring their lunch from home. Add to this parents who are equally packing for work, be it in briefcases or desk drawers, and the opportunity is A-plus.

Here are five ways to turn the deli into a back-to-school lunch-fixings destination.


Sandwiches still rate as one of kids’ favorite lunchbox entrées. Popular fillings include traditional deli fixings like sliced ham, turkey and roast beef, cheeses and pre-prepared protein salads.

“Best-sellers for us are traditional tuna, chicken and egg salads,” says Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development for Don’s Prepared Foods, based in Schwenksville, PA. “Retail delis often promote salads online or in-store by the pound.”


Focus group research says parents want warm, satisfying, nutritious meals for their kids and that kids love comfort food dishes like pasta, says Matthew Sade, co-founder and CEO of Freeli Foods LLC, in Oakland, CA. “Pasta is quick to cook, but who has even that amount of prep time in the morning? So, we have created nutritious pre-prepared meals around pasta and other ingredients that moms can heat and pack in a thermos or kids can eat right out of the pouch. Each contains lean protein, is lower in sodium and saturated fat than similar products and contains no added sugar.”

The company’s 7-ounce single-serve hot entrées come in five flavors: Mac & Cheese, Chicken Noodle, Pasta & Meal Sauce, Chicken Teriyaki and Burrito Bowl. Each is packaged in a microwave-safe, BPA-free pouch. The product was launched in the deli departments of Kroger stores in April 2020.

To suit the tastes of teens and parents, Don’s Prepared Foods similarly offers its new Better Bowls in five ready-to-eat flavors. These include the Chicken Pesto Pasta Bowl, Honey Sriracha Chicken Bowl, Unwrapped Grilled Chicken Burrito Bowl and two plant-based options—Mexican-Style Chorizo and Rice Bowl and Korean BBQ-Style Chick’n Bowl.

“These capitalize on the bowl craze, with healthy and clean ingredients and globally-inspired flavors. Ready to serve hot or cold,” says Cappelli.

Consider merchandising international cuisine to younger children too. Over one-third (36%) of American parents of kids ages 18 and under said their young ones enjoy eating international foods, according to the 2018-released report, Generation Z Set to Impact the Future of Food and Drink Innovation, by the Mintel Group, with U.S. offices in Chicago. What’s more, nearly half (four in 10) parents say their kids’ tastes are more sophisticated than their own at the same age, based on the 2020 Generational Consumer Trend Report, by Chicago-headquartered Technomic Inc.


As consumers ease into pre-pandemic fall routines, expect to see many of the pandemic eating trends carry over into school and work eating occasions, says Reser’s Nelson. “Meal preparation will continue to be about ease and convenience balanced with taste and quality. The stresses of the past year highlighted that families do not want the added pressure of high-touch meals. Snacking, mini-meals and mix and match serving style will be key.”

In this vein, grab-and-go products will be popular. For example, Nelson says the company’s single-serve potato, macaroni and pasta salads give consumers a wide range of options to pair with more classic items like sandwiches and wraps in lunch boxes. Additionally, Reser’s new single-serve chicken salad, which comes in a four-unit multipack, can star as an entrée paired with crackers, rolls, salad, cut veggies or fruit.

For parents, Reser’s new Deli Preferred line features convenient, resealable upscale grab-and-go deli salads. These include vinaigrette-based salads like Basil Pesto Bowtie and Lemon Capellini; ethnic varieties like Thai-Style Noodle and Greek Pasta Salad; and classic favorites like Rustic Red Potato Salad.

“These were developed to look made-in-store and capture more refined tastebuds, assuring there is something to suit everyone in the house,” says Nelson.

Single-serve cheeses make a great ingredient for snack-style lunches.

“We first introduced our snacking cheese line with fresh mozzarella and have now expanded to include aged cheeses,” says Jamie Wichlacz, marketing and public relations manager for BelGioioso Cheese, Inc., in Green Bay, WI. “We recently introduced an extra-aged Parmesan cheese called American Grana for snacking and grating. Children enjoy the rich, nutty flavor and added protein boost during the day at home or in school, while adults enjoy it with a glass of wine.”

The company’s snacking also includes Fontina, Parmesan and Fresh Asiago in 2/3- to 1-ounce portion sizes. Suggestions for lunchbox go-withs include tomatoes, roasted peppers, cured meats, melon, grapes, crackers or bread.

Similarly, Oceanside, CA-headquartered Olli Salumeria Americana offers four styles of 2-ounce protein-packed snack packs with crackers that can serve as a light entrée or after-school lunchbox snack. The meat and cheese combinations are Genoa and fontina, soppressata and mild cheddar, calabrese and asiago, and prosciutto and mozzarella.

“Antibiotic-free and nitrate-free doesn’t mean anything to kids. But it does for parents, so they can feel a little bit better about what they are sending their kids off with,” says Gil Perales, marketing director of the company.


Pasta salads make a nice side dish to a sandwich instead of chips or cookies, says Don’s Prepared Foods’ Cappelli. The company’s pasta salads include those with world flavors such as Asian Noodle, Mediterranean Orzo and Orange Ginger Couscous.

“During the back-to-school timeframe, our portion control deli caramel cups sold next to sliced apples and ranch dressing next to baby carrots are simple pairings that can easily be packed into lunches or enjoyed as an after-school snack,” says Krystal Turnbull, product manager of Litehouse, Inc., in Sandpoint, ID.


The sky’s the limit, and the ability to customize based on factors such as customer demographics, seasonality and price point are endless for delis that want to create signature lunchbox selections. The key to doing this is the right packaging. Creative packaging that makes an ideal take-out and reduces the possibility of contamination was the number one school nutrition trend identified last year by NutriStudents K-12, a South St. Paul, MN-based company that offers a self-operated system to help schools manage USDA-compliant foodservice programs.

“Our Crystal Seal reFresh Parfait cups and GoCubes are available in different size bases and mix-and-match inserts and lids that let delis create customized lunch offerings without the need for several types of packaging to keep, for example, wet and dry foods separate until consumed,” says Kali Kinziger, associate product manager for Placon, in Madison, WI.

Examples include salad ingredients and dressing; sandwich and chips; salsa and chips; fresh fruit and/or vegetables with dip; and sliced meat, cheese, crackers and nuts. Each of these packaging types is 100% recyclable.


Because of the pandemic, many families found themselves preparing meals at home most days of the week, so coming up with new food preparation ideas continues to be a focus for parents, says Andrea Luttrell, RDN, LDN, the registered dietitian nutritionist for the Living Well Eating Smart program at Big Y, a 71-store chain headquartered in Springfield, MA. “We know parents and caregivers are pressed for time, so we’re continuously working to give fun yet easy and nutritious solutions for lunches and snacks. Promoting recipes like Turkey ‘Sushi’ Wraps, which showcase all-natural sliced turkey, and suggesting simple snacks like whole-grain crackers and individually-wrapped cheese options, help families put together lunchboxes in no time that are kid-approved and adult-friendly, too.”

Besides traditional sandwiches and bagged snacks, adds Luttrell, who is one of many RDN’s employed at supermarkets nationwide, options like bento boxes filled with various ‘bites’ from different food groups continue to be popular. This is something that deli operators can show shoppers how to make or pre-make and offer for sale.

“Pulling together ‘themed’ boxes such as corn and black bean salad with whole-grain tortilla chips, guacamole, fresh fruit and aseptically-sealed milk is an exciting way to introduce bolder flavors to younger palates, while providing the variety families are looking for,” Luttrell says.

To make lunchbox offerings easy to find, Freeli Foods’ Sade suggests delis create a dedicated 4-foot refrigerated section within the department.

“This assures customers can find these items quickly and see what makes them relevant. In other words, let parents know that here is everything they need to pack a school lunch for their child. Signage on this set is important, too,” Sade says.

Finally, the deli can add value to its offerings by providing parents with sound ideas and information. Here’s where the retail dietitian can also help.

“Since the start of COVID, we’ve increased our collaboration with the Partnership for Food Safety Education to integrate more food safety messaging into everything from recipe videos to consumer-facing articles,” says Big Y’s Luttrell. “In addition to food safety, we know families are interested in supporting immunity, so we provide free Virtual Nutrition Events, which show customers foods to select to keep themselves, and their families, healthy. For example, we can encourage shoppers to fill up their shopping cart with foods like colorful produce-rich deli salads, lean meats like pre-grilled chicken and bean-based dips that are all flavorful options for quick meals and snacks.” DB


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