Back to School: Healthy Lunches for Kids

Summer has flown by and the new school year is right around the corner. While some parents are ready to resume their school year routine, others are less than happy to be faced with the daunting task of packing lunches.

We’ve all heard that a well-balanced breakfast is essential for child’s growth and overall function, but the lunch meal is JUST as important. Ask any teacher or school employee and they will tell you that children who lack proper nutrition have trouble focusing. It’s not just teachers who notice this effect, as a plethora of studies have shown that children who eat nutritious meals every day and lead active lifestyles tend to excel in comparison to their counterparts.

Having a 7 year old daughter who prefers a homemade lunch has helped me gain experience in the lunch packing department, and I can truly sympathize with parents who feel overwhelmed. Long work hours combined with various children’s activities can make it hard to prep dinner, let alone lunch for the following day. This time crunch often leaves parents throwing together whatever snack items they can find into a lunch box. While this method is indeed time efficient, many of these lunches are heavy in simple carbohydrates and light on fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Carbs are an important source of energy, but the wrong type or amount of carbs, combined with the lack of other important nutrients, can leave children feeling sluggish and ravenous by the time they get home.

 I recommend avoiding the following foods:

  • Packaged fruit snacks
  • Refined grain products, such as regular crackers, potato chips, and white bread (when in doubt, remember this saying: “if it’s white, don’t bite”)
  • Fruit cups packed in syrup
  • Processed cheese dips
  • Yogurt cups with added sugar
  • Sugary drinks and desserts

It’s not to say that these foods are completely off limits, but they should be considered treats rather than meal staples.

The good news is you can create delicious, healthy lunches that require minimal prep with a few of my key tips!

1. Overcome the Pinterest mentality

Many of us use Pinterest for meal ideas, and a quick search of kid lunches will include glamorous meals that even adults would die for. The reality is, the majority of parents do not have time to whip up these gourmet meals. We can do ourselves a favor by focusing on realistic meal ideas that are ideal for our family schedule.

2. Instead of re-creating fancy meals, focus on food components

The MyPlate guide was designed to do just that– guide us through what our meal should look like. This government nutrition guide replaced the old food pyramid and is an excellent way to ensure meals are well-balanced.

You can use the picture below to help account for all food groups, but keep in mind that the lunch doesn’t have to resemble this format 100%. For example, if you want to pack leftovers from the night before, your child’s lunch might consist of some whole grain pasta with diced chicken and mozzarella cheese. This meal would cover the grain, dairy, and protein components. Simply add some fruits and vegetables and you have successfully included all the MyPlate food components.

Following this format allows for creativity, but you can keep it as simple as you’d like by tossing in individual foods from each category, such as a mozzarella string cheese (dairy and some protein), a cup of mandarin oranges (fruit), pre-packaged carrot sticks (veggies), whole grain crackers (grains), and some sliced turkey (protein).

My plate.png

3. Plan ahead

Those who are most successful in anything they do in life are those who are prepared and plan ahead. The planning process doesn’t have to be elaborate– simply creating a 1 week menu or even a few days in advanced will take the pressure off the morning of school.

Start by creating a list of quick, go-to options that you will always have on hand, such as PB&J sandwiches on whole grain bread, whole grain crackers and cheese, and fruit and veggies. Then, be sure to always have your kitchen stocked with these healthy items so you have a back-up plan if you find yourself in a bind.

4. Include your children in the planning process

Glamorous or not, if children don’t like what’s in their lunch box, they aren’t going to eat it. Have your child sit down with you when you create the menu so they can give you their input. If they give you not-so-healthy suggestions, try giving those menu items a facelift by substituting healthier ingredients. For example, if they like pizza, instead of purchasing a pizza Lunchable or packing leftover frozen pizza, whip up a healthier option by topping a whole grain FlatOut Wrap (or similar product) with reduced sugar pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, diced chicken, and veggies. This is a great alternative that includes 4 out the 5 MyPlate components and requires minimal prep.

5. Establish a prep routine

Every family is different in what works for them. Some can prep an entire week worth of lunches on a Sunday night, and others only a few days in advanced. Find a routine that is realistic for you and your family, and try your best to stick with it. Here are my top suggestions for quick lunch prep:

  • Pre-portion as many items as you can ahead of time:
    • Cut up and pre-portion veggies as soon as you get home from the grocery store. While this process may take you 10 minutes, it will save you so much time and effort in the mornings to be able to grab it out of the fridge and throw it in their bag
    • Purchase snack items (such as whole grain crackers, nuts, and air popped popcorn) in bulk and pre-portion them out in snack bags. Store these items in labeled containers in the pantry for grab and go options. Buying these in bulk will save you money in the long run and you can prep as few or many as you would like in advanced
    • Make several sandwiches at once and store them in a special section of your fridge. This will save you time from having to prep one every morning/night since you will already have all the ingredients out. I personally only like to prep 2-3 sandwiches at a time because the bread can get soggy, but just adding an extra minute to make 1 additional sandwich saves me 5 minutes from having to do it the morning of
    • If convenience is your top priority, you can purchase a veggie tray with pre-cut vegetables to save time on prep. Simply throw these in bags and you are ready to go

6. Sneak in the healthy stuff

Fruits and vegetables are vital components of a well-balanced meal, but not every child is crazy about them.

  • For picky eaters, add fruits and veggies to entrees instead of serving them as a side. They can be diced or pureed to go unnoticed in items like egg muffins, homemade muffins, sandwiches, quesadillas, smoothies, casseroles, and on top of pizza
  • Research has also shown that children are more likely to eat a healthy food when it’s paired with one of their favorite foods. So feel free to mix items like baby carrots with whole grain Goldfish crackers to satisfy their crunch, or perhaps pair it with their favorite dip like hummus, guacamole, or light ranch

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Now that you have a better idea of how to prep and pack a lunch like a pro, it’s time to put on your thinking cap for healthy lunch ideas. Again, these don’t have to be elaborate; a simple lunch with healthy food components will suffice. Below are my favorite, healthy lunch swaps for busy parents!

  • Instead of regular potato chips and crackers, try roasted chickpeas, air popped popcorn, apple chips– which count as a fruit– or flavored flaxseed crackers (like these that are available at most grocery stores for around $5/bag). These items are loaded with fiber and additional protein to promote satiety. Below are the homemade apple chips I made by slicing one apple, sprinkling it with cinnamon, and baking it on a parchment lined baking sheet for 90 minutes at 225 degrees:apple chips
  • Instead of Gogurts or sugary yogurt cups, swap in plain Greek yogurt for double the protein and flavor it with fresh berries or drizzled honey
  • Instead of fruit cups, pack whole fruit, unsweetened applesauce, apple/fruit chips, or freeze dried fruit without added sugar
  • Instead of deli meat, use leftover chicken or other proteins from dinner, tuna cups, chicken/salmon/tuna salad, or hard boiled eggs
  • Remember, when in doubt, make all grains whole grains! Whole grain products with minimal additives and preservatives are the best option

For more lunch ideas, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite, go-to healthy lunch combos. Feel free to add these items to your menu rotation!

1. Breakfast Wraps: Spread natural peanut butter with no added sugar on a whole grain tortilla or wrap (I personally love FlatOut Wraps and Lavesh Wraps). Top with fresh fruit, such as strawberries and bananas. Roll up and slice in half. Provides grain, fruit, and protein components. Pair with veggie sticks and yogurt for a complete meal.

2. Mexican Chicken Pita: Stuff a whole grain pita with diced chicken, avocado slices, lettuce, shredded cheese, and salsa. Serve with a mozzarella string cheese and orange slices for a complete meal.

3. Blueberry Smoothie (with hidden veggies!) Try this recipe:

Blend the following ingredients together until smooth. Makes 2 servings.

  • 2/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 ripe banana
  • 2/3 cup frozen blueberries
  • 2 large frozen strawberries
  • 1 cup spinach leaves (fresh is best)
  • 1/2 cup milk of choice (dairy, coconut, soy, almond)
  • 1 tablespoon of honey, or to taste (optional)

Make in bulk and place frozen smoothie in lunch box so it can thaw out during the morning and be ready in time for lunch.

4. Homemade Egg Muffins: Prep these in a batch for a quick grab-and-go breakfast or lunch option. Try this recipe!

5. Cream Cheese and Veggie Sandwich: Top whole grain bread or a whole grain English muffin with reduced fat cream cheese, cucumber slices, and bell peppers. Add a serving of fruit for a complete meal.

6. Yogurt Parfait: Layer plain Greek yogurt with layers of fresh fruit, such as berries, bananas, or peaches. Pack a side of crunchy, whole grain cereal as a nice topping and some fresh veggie sticks with hummus for a well-balanced meal.

7. Sandwich Kabobs: Add pieces of chopped chicken, bell peppers, cheese cubes, and whole grain bread on skewers for a fun, sandwich alternative. Add fresh fruit for a complete meal. You can even make fruit kabobs with yogurt dip on the side!

8. Hummus Pita: Spread 2 tablespoons of hummus inside a whole grain pita and stuff with baby spinach leaves, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Serve with a small piece of fruit and hard boiled egg.

9. Bento Box: Pair sliced apples with no sugar added nut butter, cubed cheese, veggie sticks plus hummus, and whole grain crackers.

10. Pizza Wrap: Spread reduced sugar pizza sauce on a whole grain tortilla or wrap. Top with shredded cheese and veggies and roll up. Serve with sliced bell peppers and reduced fat ranch or hummus.

Hopefully this guide will help make lunch prep easier for you this school year! If you have any creative lunch combos that your child enjoys, I would love to hear about it in the comment section below!

Until next time,

Erin

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