Getting Schooled

Take a big bite into back to school deli sales.

Carol M. Bareuther

Like American’s 4 p.m. quandary of ‘What’s for Dinner?’, parents ponder ‘What’s for Lunch?’ when the hands on the seasonal clock hits fall. The sales potential of back-to-school lunchbox fare is huge. Consider that of the 53.5 million 5- to 18-year-olds in the US in 2019, a little over half (55% were enrolled in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. This meant nearly half were noshing at noon on food from somewhere else, such as packed from home. This number rose significantly with the pandemic and at-home schooling. Parents’ and caregivers’ hunger for lunch-packing ideas is often matched by deli operators’ appetite to prepare and promote anticipated best-sellers. Both can take their cue from the latest food trends and how these apply to the lunchbox bunch.

“Children of Millennial and Gen-Z parents tend to be exposed to more variety and more international foods than previous generations, although their packed lunches likely revolve around traditional staples (think: sandwiches, applesauce, string cheese, yogurt, etc.),” says Jay Whitney, chief marketing officer for Phoenix, AZ-headquartered FoodStory Brands, manufacturers of Fresh Cravings salsas, hummus and dips. 

Today’s kids are more willing to try new foods and flavors at home, Whitney adds, however, data from Chicago-based Datassential’s K-12 Operators Keynote, 2021, shows that less than 7% are likely to try new foods at school. This trend is likely since parents’ main concern when packing lunches is that their children will eat the food. As a result, this can outweigh all other concerns, such as health and convenience, making school lunches quite different from meals served at home. At home, according to Mintel’s US Feeding the Family Market Report, 2022, parents are focused more on offering nutrition and variety and can monitor if the child gets enough sustenance. 


The basic menu of what’s inside today’s lunchboxes hasn’t changed much in the last decade. Back then, a typical lunch consisted of water, a sandwich and a snack food, according to the 2014-published article, ‘What’s in Children’s Backpacks: Foods Brought from Home, in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. More specifically, the most common lunch foods provided were sandwiches (59%) and snack foods (42%) followed by fruit (34%) and dessert (28%).

  SANDWICHES 2.0. Students K-12 age have always wanted a fun, creative meals but parents continue to be strapped for time and energy, says Katie Baldwin, brand marketing manager for the Atalanta Corp., in Elizabeth, NJ. “What we’re seeing is trends towards easy handhelds that are fun and engaging for kids and simple for parents. It’s why sandwiches have always been a big hit.”

Back-to-school brings a rush on sandwich-geared items like Volpi Foods’ Trio package that features Genoa Salame, Mortadella and Coppa in one, according to Deanna Depke, marketing manager for the St. Louis-based maker of specialty cured meats. “It’s a parent favorite because they can stack it all on a sandwich and prep a few meals with one easy package.”

The company’s line of Small Bites is a great solution for parents making a single sandwich, Depke adds. The individual packages feature 1.5-ounces (about six slices) of thinly-sliced meats like Sopressata Salame and Prosciutto that can be added to any lunchbox staple. 

Meats and cheeses go together for sandwich-making. 

“Our 12-ounce Italian Cheeseboard with pre-slice Provolone, Fontina, Parmesan and Asiago is a time-saving option for sandwiches and snacking, too,” says Umberto Marconi, vice president of marketing for Green Bay, WI-based BelGioioso Cheese, Inc. 

While sandwiches are still popular, families are getting more creative with fillings and more sensitive due to some common allergies. Instead of peanut butter, hummus spread on toast with a favorite vegetable or deli meat is delicious, suggests Kamila De Maria, associate director of marketing for the Sabra Dipping Co., LLC, in White Plains, NY. “We see more meal prep with families using one day a week to map out a plan and prepare. So, offer a tub of hummus that can be used for lunch a few days a week on wraps or sandwiches.”

Fresh Cravings recently launched 17-ounce family-sized hummus containers in its most popular flavors: Classic, Honey Jalapeño, Roasted Red Pepper and Roasted Garlic. In February, the company also introduced three new 10-ounce hummus flavors: Everything Bagel, Honey Jalapeño, and Spicy Red Pepper. New, too, is packaging that shows the brand’s fresh and distinctive personality with playful imagery of fruits and vegetables that appeal to children. 

“These new flavors are great options to allow parents to add additional flavor profiles to their children’s lunches,” says Whitney.

  SNACKS. It might be a sandwich go-with, or for a mid-morning, mid-afternoon or after-school eating occasion, or even a sandwich replacement mini-meal. No matter what it called, snacks are essential lunchbox fare. According to the Chicago-headquartered Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, the world’s largest organization of nutrition and dietetics professionals, school-aged children ages tots to teens require one to two snacks daily.

Instead of a bag of chips, parents can offer kids healthier alternatives like clean-label grain salads. These are especially popular with teens, as they embrace a plant-based diet. Flavors include Adobo Rice & Beans, Coconut Rice & Lentils, and a Cranberry Grain Salad. Retail delis can sell these grain salads behind the glass by the pound,” says Carl Cappelli, senior vice president of sales and business development for Don’s Prepared Foods, in Schwenksville, PA.

Sabra Snackers are popular for school, says De Maria. “Both the Classic Hummus with Pretzels and the gluten-free Guacamole with Tostitos Rolls.” Each comes in a single-serve 2-ounce portion.

Another great plant-based protein snack is boiled peanuts.

“This year we introduced 12-ounce sized bags of our popular Original and Cajun flavors,” says Lauren Marcinkoski, CEO of the Luray Peanut Co., in Luray, SC. “The package size fits easily into most lunch box styles and is a serving size great for sharing. The package can be packed directly from the freezer or refrigerator and serve as cooling for the entire box until it is time to eat.”

Fresh-frozen products are quickly becoming the ‘new norm’ for families on the go, who are now feeling the impact of global supply chain issues and want to have their favorite foods on hand, Marcinkoski adds. This is leading to trends like buying in bulk to freeze and store at home. The company’s fresh-frozen boiled peanuts fit this trend and can stay frozen for up to 12 months or stored in the refrigerator for up to 30 days. 

Boiled peanuts pair well as a snack with precut meats, cheeses and fruits.

“Parents tend to stock up on snack items like our Roltini Singles,” says Depke, of Volpi’s 1.5-ounce servings of mozzarella sticks wrapped with meats like prosciutto, salame and pepperoni as well as an Oaxaca and chorizo combination. “We now offer our Roltini in both five-pack and 10-pack varieties that save shoppers money and let them prepare lunches for a week all with one package.”

BelGioioso’s entire snacking cheese line is popular with school-age and adult consumers. The line started with Fresh Mozzarella and now includes a total of nine selections including the company’s newest variety, Provolone Bites. Each serving is 3/4- to 1-ounce in size. 

The concept of Snack-Meal, where a combination of snack foods makes a whole meal, is gaining traction. This is where the deli can capitalize on kid-friendly charcuterie for lunch boxes either as manufacturer-made ready-to-eat combo packs, DYI ingredients for parents or deli-made selections customized to the retailer customer’s tastes.

A good example of the first is Olli Salumeria’s Snack Packs. These feature a mix of preservative-, nitrate- and antibiotic-free salami, cheese and crackers, and are a best-seller for back-to-school. Each of the five flavor varieties offers 2 ounces of product and 13 grams of protein to keep kids satisfied.

“While our Snack Packs aren’t technically new, this is the first time we’ve actively promoted them in the fall and to busy parents looking for a convenient brown bag and lunch box meal options. Also, given the all-ages appeal of slow-cured salami, cheese and crackers, these complete snacks are equally ideal for moms and dads transitioning to the busy, back-to-normal fall routine,” says Maureen McDonnell, director of marketing for the Oceanside, CA-based maker of traditional European-style salumi.

As for DIY, parents are having fun putting together high-in-protein portable boards that are customized for their picky eaters, adds Volpi’s Depke. “This has given a new use for our Genoa and Pepperoni Nugget slices. These thick-cut snackable slices are the perfect bite-size treat, and the ever-popular Pepperoni flavor is a hit with kids. The great thing about this trend is that the kids get to include their favorite veggies, fruit slices, charcuterie meats and cheeses so nothing goes to waste.”

Bento boxes, or single-portion, multi-compartment, home-packed containers, are booming in popularity as a lunch vehicle. These can either be packed at home, where parents can buy their ingredients from the deli. Or these also work well for the deli to create a signature program for back-to-school. 

If Bento boxes aren’t available, Placon, a packaging supplier based in Madison, WI, offers Fresh ‘n Clear GoCubes containers as well as its Refresh Parfait Cups. Both have inserts to create more than one compartment, come in single to many serve sizes and have options of dome or flat lids.

“We have seen great success with kid-friendly recipes, especially when themed specifically for a lunchbox. For example, our chef partner created one Bento box with our Classic Hummus, breadsticks with deli meat, berries, veggie straws and cucumber sticks. The mixture of textures, tastes, colors and shapes made it so fun and visually appealing for kids. Another option our chef partner created was a Bento box with a bagel with our Roasted Red Pepper and Classic Hummus, avocado, hard-boiled eggs, grapes and freeze-dried cauliflower,” describes FoodStory Brands’ Whitney.


Make it easy for parents and caregivers to buy for back-to-school lunch making. The best way to do this is by employing cross merchandising to create a one-stop shop destination display.

“Shopping in the deli is an experience, and in-store merchandising needs to be eye-catching. Draw attention with display ideas and demos for lunch box lunches. Make it convenient and relevant for busy shoppers. Try cross-promoting Snacking Cheeses with pre-sliced fruits and vegetables, meats, olives and crackers. The experience adds value to the shopping experience and your demo person may help answer questions and give suggestions with a lunch box menu and shopping list for shoppers to consider. An in-store dietitian might lend a hand during the demo to explain the nutritional value of the cheeses being sampled,” recommends BelGioioso’s Marconi.

Manufacturers can help indicate what cross merchandises best with their products.

“We’ve seen tortilla chips, snack cheese, fresh loose fruits such as bananas and apples and bread as some of the top categories purchased in baskets with our Fresh Cravings Salsas, according to leading retailer shopper data. Additionally, for our hummus, we have seen fresh loose fruits such as bananas and apples, dippable vegetables such as baby carrots, snack cheeses, salty snacks and bread,” says FoodStory’s Whitney.

Deli and produce managers have a unique opportunity to work together to create shopper-friendly secondary displays with complementary products to boost back-to-school sales, says Olli Salumeria’s McDonnell. “Our Snack Packs are best cross merchandised with whole or cut fruits and vegetables, specifically grapes, apples, oranges, bananas, carrots and celery as well as traditional stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, apricots and nectarines) that are in season through early fall. Another easy pairing option is ready-to-eat salad kits featuring leafy greens mixed with vegetables, toppings and dressings.”

Finally, take the back-to-school deli experience outside of the store.

“A great way to do this is through posting useful content within a retailer’s social media feed,” suggests FoodStory’s Whitney. “Create attractive visuals and bring in experts, like Registered Dietitians and chefs, to give ideas that will help parents increase their kids’ servings of fruits and veggies. Offer ideas that are palatable for picky children and will stay food-safe through lunchtime. We’ve seen great engagement among our fans when we actively integrate lunchbox hacks and easy-to-make recipes into our social media content.”


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