We all, as parents, try to do our best to provide our children with nutritious food. But our good intentions can be ruined by our busy schedules or kids’ picky eating habits. It is especially difficult to come up with ideas for packed lunches that would be both nutritious and appetizing for our children. Here are a few ideas that may help you create balanced lunches that your children will still enjoy.
Healthy lunchbox basics:
- Balance is the key. Make sure to include one serving of grow food (source of protein + starch), one serving of vegetables, one serving of fruit and/or some dairy. Dairy is optional since most children get plenty of milk and yogurt at other meals. A preschooler needs only 2 serving of dairy per day to meet her calcium needs. One serving of dairy is 8 oz milk, 8oz of yogurt, 1.5 cup ricotta cheese, 2 cups cottage cheese or 1.5 oz of hard cheese.
- Vary it. Even if your child eats only a few foods for lunch, find a way to alternate between them so that the child does not expect the same food every day.
- Limit treats to a couple of times a week and keep them small. Most of prepackaged snacks are too high in salt, sugar and/or fat, so it makes sense to limit them to an occasional treat. Besides, your child will be more likely to eat the real fruit and vegetables you packed in the lunchbox if there is no fruit-flavored snack or chips next to them.
- Make it easy. Typical dinner foods such as pizza, roasted chicken, pasta, meatballs and soup can make a convenient and delicious lunch when packed in a container or insulated cup the next day.
- Go veggies! Vegetables are underrated when it comes to packing lunch. Make sure to include a small serving of vegetables such as carrots or celery sticks, cherry tomatoes (cut in half), steamed or raw green beans, or corn on the cob. You can also add a small container with your child’s favorite dip such as hummus or ranch dressing. If the veggies come back untouched – do not worry, you are doing a great job exposing your child to healthy foods which is a crucial element of developing future food preferences.
- Watch the fruit juice. American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend more than 1 serving of juice (4-6oz) a day for kids ages 1 to 6 and only 8 to12 ounces a day for older children.
Fun ideas to make the lunch box more appealing:
- Cool shapes. Cookie cutters can create fun shapes kids of all ages love. Bigger sizes are great for sandwiches and smaller cutters like those used in bento lunchboxes can make beautiful carrot flowers or cucumber hearts.
- Wrap and roll. Practically anything can be used as a filling for a wrap –black beans and rice, grilled chicken with avocado and hummus with tomatoes are just a few examples. Make sure to use a spread like mayo, hummus or guacamole as a “glue” to keep the wrap and the filling together.
- Move beyond the sandwich bread. To keep it exciting, try bagels, wraps, whole grain sandwich crackers, pita bread, and English muffins instead of regular sandwich bread.
- Involve children in the preparation. Pack a few slices of bread or a wrap, some ham, cheese, tomatoes slices and lettuce and let your child make a lunch at school all by himself. For a fun presentation, teach your child to put cubes of ham, cheese and vegetables like grape tomatoes or pieces of celery on wooden skewers. Another fun idea is to make a wrap with sliced turkey and cheese, cut it into pinwheels and secure them with toothpicks for fun presentation.
- Serve breakfast for lunch. Whole grain pancakes and waffles can be cooked in big batches on the weekend, frozen and used in lunchboxes during the week. They are always a great success even with picky eaters. Most of children also enjoy parfaits made by creating layers of yogurt, granola and fresh or frozen berries in a glass container with a lid.
Read here about food safety issues to take into consideration.
Here are sample packed lunch menus.