If your child regularly brings his or her lunch to school, you’ve faced the “what to pack” dilemma. You want to pack something nutritious, but you also need to be sure your kids will eat it. A thrown-out lunch does nothing for your child’s health or your wallet; it’s basically cash in the trash.
In addition to providing roughly a third of the nutrients your child’s body needs to grow and be healthy, a well-balanced lunch also provides brain and body energy to remain alert and focused for the rest of his or her school day. So making sure your child eats it is crucial. Finding that balance of nutritious and delicious can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s far from impossible.
I recently spoke to my friend Sally Kuzemchak, a registered dietitian, author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide: Feed Your Family. Save Your Sanityand author of the Real Mom Nutrition blog, to get her ideas. Most of us view a school lunch as a sandwich, a side, a drink and maybe a treat, but Kuzemchak thinks in broader categories: “a protein source, whole grain, fruit, vegetable and ideally a calcium source as well,” she says. This concept can broaden your possibilities and allow you think “outside of the lunchbox.”
For example, a lunch of whole-grain crackers, turkey and cheddar cubes, melon balls, and cucumber sticks with some dip meets all the requirements, as does a slice or two (depending on size) of leftover pizza and apple slices with peanut butter. Even a basic sandwich can be more appealing if you swap out plain bread for cinnamon bread, a hot-dog roll, a whole-grain mini bagel, or a whole-grain tortilla.
Here are some foods that would fit into each group that you could mix and match to create lunches with kid-appeal:
- Protein: Deli meat slices (that could be rolled up) or cubes, nut butter, hard-boiled egg, edamame, hummus.
- Whole grain: Crackers, tortilla, different breads, different types/shapes of rolls, popcorn.
- Fruit: Apple slices, orange smiles, melon balls, raisins, pineapple chunks, no-sugar added applesauce or fruit cups.
- Veggies: Cucumber sticks, colorful pepper rings, pizza or tomato sauce, carrot sticks or canned green beans (rinsed and drained). A bit of low-fat dip goes well with many of these.
- Calcium source: Low-fat milk, reduced-fat yogurt, cheese cubes or slices, cottage cheese (some kids might like their fruit mixed in with this)
Try some of these recipes:
- Pack yogurt, cut-up grapes or diced apples/pears, a whole grain cereal in separate containers and your child can make a yogurt parfait by combining it all at school.
- This Italian Chicken Noodle Soup is great for cold days–Make it on the weekend for the upcoming week or have it for dinner and send the kids with leftovers for lunch.
- Kuzemchak also has two yummy, homemade fruit leather recipes on her blog that could be made on the weekends for simple grab-and-go during the week: Strawberry fruit leather and Apple cinnamon fruit leather.
- Or if your kids like a little crunch, give these baked Apple Chips a try. Make a batch over the weekend to divvy out over the week.
- This basic orzo salad is even better the next day, so make it on the weekend for the week ahead. (To simplify and make it more affordable, I use balsamic vinaigrette in place of the vinegar, oil and seasonings and slivered almonds in place of pine nuts.) You can change it up based on your child’s likes — light ranch or another favorite dressing, different nuts,or different cheeses–making for endless possibilities.
- These Mini Deep Dish Pizzas are incredibly easy. They can be eaten cold or you can reheat them and throw them into a thermos if your kids prefer them warm. Use your kids favorite toppings to personalize them.
- Homemade granola bars are also easy to make and can be frozen to stay fresh longer.
Once or twice a week, surprise your child with a sweet ending to his or her lunch. This can be as simple as a handful of chocolate kisses or a pudding cup. If you’re a baker, bake up a batch of cookies one weekend that you can freeze and dole out over the course of several weeks.
When packing the lunches, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep it fairly simple. Remember lunch time in some schools can be as short as 10 to 15 minutes and if children have to spend most of their time opening difficult containers or spreading sauces, etc. they may not have enough time to eat. Ready to eat, dump and mix or finger foods and dips are all good choices.
- Kuzemchak warns, “Be careful about packing too much. I find that if I scale back on the portions and number of items I pack, my kids eat more. Large lunches are overwhelming for small kids, especially when they have a limited time to eat.”
- Be sure to keep cold foods cold (with an ice pack) and hot foods hot (in a thermos). When I have both hot and cold foods for my kids, the cold food goes in the lunch box with the ice pack and the thermos goes in a separate bag that I tie onto the lunch box handle.
- I also like my kids to drink milk for lunch, so I make a tray of mini milk ice cubes and each morning I pop one in their milk cup. Its just a little extra insurance that the milk stays cold, in addition to the ice pack. I have mini ice cube trays like these –you really only need one, so maybe you can go split up this set with friends to make them super cheap. I also like these milk cups because they seal tightly but the kids can open them, they are easy to clean, and the mini ice cubes fit perfectly into them.
Another challenge with creating a healthy and yummy lunch is carving out time to make one. Kuzemchak has some helpful tips:
- Do as much as you can the night before. Mornings are crazy enough.
- Involve your kids if possible. For instance, make a little chart on selections you both agree on and have items kids can grab and pack
- Prep some items on the weekends. For example, freeze sandwiches for the week then pop them in the lunchbox the night before when you’re packing. By lunch, they’ll be defrosted. Wash and cut vegetables.
- Get gear that makes it easy. I’m a huge fan of the Easy Lunchboxes and Ziplock dividing lunchbox containers because you can fit everything in the compartments but there’s only one container and one lid. Reusable containers are not only good for the planet but think of the money you’ll save on baggies and foil. Plus no more flat sandwiches from apples smooshing them.
These ideas should help you get the school year (at least school lunch) off to a great start.