Q: What healthy lunch ideas should I plan for when my kids go back to school?
Packing your child’s lunch can be a challenge, especially if the “healthy” items tend to come home untouched at the end of the day. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make packing easier for you and eating more fun for your children.
According to the American Dietetic Association’s Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids (2002), a “five-star lunch” should provide one serving from each of the five main food groups, contain no more than one item from a nutritionally lacking category, include high-fiber foods, have a low-fat content, and be a meal your child will eat and enjoy! As a parent, remember, you are setting an example about healthful eating each time you pack your children’s lunch.
Pick a cool lunchbox. Let your child select a fun and practical lunch box that fits her style. Aim for an insulated design and pick out a fun ice pack for each child. If possible, get a bento box-style lunchbox with different compartments.
Offer choices. To increase the chances of your children eating what you pack, allow them to participate in the process, whether it’s asking them to choose what they want each day (from your stock of healthy options), or having them help with the grocery shopping. Ask them to help make your grocery list; have them select two fruits, two vegetables, two protein sources and two whole grain snacks from a list of choices.
Think outside the box. Soggy sandwiches are a hard sell, and plenty of other foods are just as nutritious and convenient. If you are sending a traditional sandwich, try using tortillas, sandwich thins, pita pockets or hoagie buns instead of plain bread.
Efficient prep. Prep on the weekends or while making dinner. Even a gourmet chef would have a hard time coming up with creative lunch ideas on a busy weekday morning. Do yourself a favor by spending time on the weekend to shop, cook and plan ahead for the week. Washing and chopping fruits and vegetables ahead of time can make lunch-packing a quicker task. Otherwise, try making lunches as you make dinner: You can fill lunchboxes with dinner ingredients. If your children like leftovers for lunch the next day, put them directly into the lunch boxes while you are cleaning up after dinner. (Hint, this makes for an easier post dinner clean up too!)
MAIN DISH IDEAS
- Turkey wrap on a whole wheat tortilla, with sliced avocado, low fat cheese and salsa
- Grilled chicken strips with dip (try honey mustard, hummus, black bean dip, low fat ranch dressing or Greek yogurt with salt free seasoning blend)
- Tuna or egg salad with 4 crackers
- Pigs in a blanket (use turkey dogs)
- Soup (insulated food containers can stay warm up to 5 hours)
- Mini homemade pizzas (try using a half of an English muffin, add pizza sauce, cheese and veggie fixings, then toast until cheese is lightly browned)
- Pasta salad
- Pancake sandwiches (with a fried egg or a lowfat turkey sausage patty)
- Greek or regular yogurt, berries and a separate container of granola
- String or cottage cheese
- Hard cooked egg
- Nuts or trail mix
- Small snack bag of pretzels or veggie chips/straws, crackers or pita chips
FRUITS & VEGGIES
- Cut up peppers, carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower or cucumber slices. Don’t forget a dip or try sprinkling a salt-free seasoning blend.
- Dried fruit like raisins, cranberries, apricots, prunes, banana chips, or fruit leathers
- Fresh or canned fruits. If buying canned, choose those in fruit juice, not syrup.
Add an occasional surprise for your children to discover when they sit down to eat. Sweets or other “treat” foods can be included once in a while, but non-food items are often just as exciting and will make your child smile without compromising their health. A sticker, pencil, special note, a photo, cute napkin or their favorite small toy may be just the thing to entice them to gobble down that healthy packed lunch.
1 hard-cooked egg
1 string cheese or 1 yogurt tube
½ apple sliced (dip in lemon juice to prevent browning) or 8–10 grapes
1 tsp peanut butter
4 whole grain crackers
6 baby carrots or sugar snap peas
1 juice box with 100% fruit juice or 1 milk carton
1 Hershey kiss
1 butter knife
1 note written by a parent
Pack all items into an insulated lunch bag, place an ice pack under the egg and cheese. Take to school and enjoy!
Sadhana Bienzen is a registered dietician who works for Smart Results, LLC. She enjoys writing and speaking about nutrition and wellness, and spending time with her husband and four children.