Well, it happened already. My daughter came home from school, handed back her full lunchbox, and with pleading eyes said: “Please, Mom, no more ham and cheese sandwiches. Please.”
We are only just beginning the second month of school and I’ve hit a lunch packing dead end. How is that even possible? After chatting with other parents, however, I found out I’m not alone. There are plenty of us who, for various reasons, be it time constraints, picky eaters or convenience, already have a toe in the lunch packing rut or, like me, have simply jumped in head first.
While the responses from other parents initially made me feel better, the problem still existed: What was I going to pack my daughter for lunch? Clearly not a ham and cheese sandwich. As I pondered this dilemma I decided I needed to adopt a different outlook on packing lunches. No more tossing deli meat between bread and adding random items to my daughter’s lunch box with the hope that she’d be hungry enough to eat it. Nope. It was time to get serious about packing lunches. I don’t have tons of extra time but I felt sure that a little bit of weekend preparation would go a long way. Afterall, research shows that what children eat at lunch, and other meals and snacks times, can influence his or her ability to retain information, concentrate, and thus earn good grades. Naturally I want my child to enjoy a healthy lunch that provides her with the proper nutrients she needs to fuel her brain and body so she can learn and thrive in school. And, of course, offer enough variety so she’s not handing back her full lunchbox.
Speaking of variety, let’s start with the basics. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that a balanced lunchbox contain:
- Grains, such as bread, rice, pasta or potatoes
- Protein found in meat, fish, eggs or beans
- Dairy found in cheese, yogurt, milk
- Fruits and vegetables
To help make putting together healthy lunches less stressful and, dare I say, fun, Lora Hyde, a Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist with with Partners in Nutrition Therapy, has suggested the following.
Get your kids involved in the process
This can be as simple as offering two options from each food group to your children and letting them decide which one to add to their lunchboxes. Or, you can go a step further by taking your children grocery shopping with you and letting them help you make decisions about what foods to buy.
“Both of these steps promote feelings of responsibility and empowerment for children,” says Hyde. “When they feel valued and included, they are more likely to carry out their actions, in this case, making and eating healthy school lunches.”
Turn healthy foods into fun lunches
Now that you’ve got your grocery bags full of healthy, protein-rich foods, it’s time to get creative. Consider using cookie cutters (regular sized and minis) to make shapes out of sandwiches, watermelon slices, or meat and cheese or use a melon-baller for fruit. Use plastic or bamboo skewers or even popsicle sticks to create colorful kebabs out of fruit, vegetables, or meat and cheese cubes because, really, food on a stick is just plain fun. Or you and your child could decide upon a lunch theme. For example, Rainbow Day would include food items for every color of the rainbow and Alphabet Day would mean picking a letter and foods that begin with the letter.
Make your own snacks and limit the processed ones
Kids (heck, even adults!) rely upon snacks to keep their energy levels up throughout the day. But the right snack is important too. Sugary or fatty snacks can actually lead to a burst of energy followed by a big dip. Try making snacks that will sustain energy levels and include a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, and natural sugars. For instance, the tried and true Ants on a Log (peanut or other nut butter on celery topped with raisins) is a nutritious, balanced snack. Other healthy, homemade snacks that you and your child can make together are no-bake energy bites, yogurt (yep, you can easily make your own yogurt), granola with nuts and dried fruit, or mini muffins (fun fact: you can hide pureed veggies in there, too). You could even try your hand at making your own fruit roll ups or hummus, which kids like as a dip with vegetable sticks, pretzels, or as a condiment in sandwiches or wraps.
Use colorful containers and utensils
Kids are attracted to bright colors so it makes sense that colorful containers and utensils are appealing. There are plenty of options on the market, everything from plastic or metal containers that hold small portions to larger bento-style boxes that include dividers so you can pack lunch items in one large container. There are colored plastic baggies and wraps too. Take your children to the store and them pick out a few containers they like and will use
We know kids can be fussy and coming up with new and interesting meals that aren’t full of sugar or won’t get thrown away can be tricky. Below are a few packed lunch ideas that have been a hit with my daughter. Use these as a launching pad to get you started on your packed lunch journey.
Rainbow Veggie Spring Rolls
Using rice paper wrappers or large lettuce leaves simply place two to three thin strips of raw veggies, such as red and yellow peppers, carrots, celery, and purple cabbage at one end of the wrap, drizzle with lite ranch or a sweet chili asian sauce then roll. (You can add shrimp or strips of pork or chicken, too.) Pair the Spring Rolls with a few cubes of cheddar cheese (we skewered ours on plastic picks!), 15 almonds or cashews, and a few slices of mangoes.
Deli Meat Roll-ups
Think outside the bun! Take two rounded cheese sticks and wrapped a slice of turkey meat around one and a slice of roast beef around the other. You can also wrap the meat around greens or smear one side of the meat with cream cheese and roll it. Pair the meat roll ups with two mini (homemade) pumpkin (or other fruit) muffins, carrot & celery sticks with a tablespoon of lite dressing for dipping, and apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon.
Hummus & Pita
Kids love to dip their food, so why not make it a meal. Slice a piece of pita bread into eight triangles and include a few cucumber slices and four or five olives to dip into either homemade or store bought hummus. Pair the meal with 2 ounces of cubed salami or ham, a mix of red and green grapes, and yogurt drizzled with honey.
Hearty Pasta Salads
The sky’s the limit with these types of dishes–and so easy. Using cooked and cooled whole-wheat pasta mix with a variety of diced veggies (carrots, celery, peppers, edamame), add mini turkey pepperoni slices and cubed cheese then toss it all together with a lite dressing, such as balsamic vinaigrette or Italian. Pair with a hard-boiled egg, melon stars, and six to eight yogurt- covered mini pretzels.
Breakfast for Lunch
This lunch idea is a huge hit and the envy of my daughter’s friends. We have two favorites: Scrambled eggs with cheese shreds wrapped in a warmed corn or flour tortilla (small) and topped with chopped bacon. Wrapping this in aluminum foil keeps it warm enough for lunch. Pair this with raspberries and Nutella spread on a graham cracker. Or try mini blueberries pancakes with a side of pure maple syrup for dipping or drizzling, paired with strawberries and a squeezable or drinkable yogurt. (These two lunches are light on veggies so I try to pack Ants on a Log for snack time.)
Tara Mitchell is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She lives in Malta, NY with her husband and two children. She’s an avid collector of vintage, fine and fashion jewelry and enjoys throwing themed parties.