Building a healthy school lunch begins with planning. Studies show that children who are involved in packing their own lunches are more likely to eat that lunch!
Start at the grocery store. Shop in aisles with healthy food choices and avoid the processed, pre-packaged, costly, non-nutritious lunch options. Let your children choose the fruits and vegetables, yogurt and healthy snacks for their lunches. Once home, have your children help prepare and pack their lunch boxes. Pack two days’ worth at a time to save time.
Involving your children in simple food preparation helps them develop basic skills in the kitchen and gives them a sense of independence. Have them count out snacks into an individual serving. Cutting fruits, vegetables and sandwiches into shapes using cookie cutters makes lunch preparation fun and less of a chore. And reusable lunch containers with separate compartments are a fun way to help kids organize their food choices while being environmentally friendly!
Here are some school lunch ideas:
Build a better sandwich. Choose whole wheat or whole grain breads, pitas or wraps. Today’s whole wheat breads are more tender and have a lighter texture than the whole-wheat breads of yesteryear. Start introducing whole-wheat bread products to your children when packing their favorite sandwiches. Keep your sandwich proteins healthy; ideas include chicken, turkey, tuna, cheese and peanut butter. Layer some fruits and veggies into the sandwich. Add lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach leaves or alfalfa sprouts on sandwiches. Prepare tuna with chopped celery and carrots. Add thinly sliced apples or pears to turkey sandwiches.
Pack finger foods. Everything’s more fun to eat when you eat with your fingers! Try chicken, ham or turkey and cheese rolls. Pack crackers and cheese or string cheese. Pair veggies like cucumber, red pepper strips, carrots, sugar snap peas, broccoli florets and celery with hummus, bean dip, nut butters or low-fat ranch dressing, and add nutrients and fiber!
Include a fresh fruit treat. Add apples, pears, strawberries, kiwi, orange sections, bananas, grapes and berries or a “fruit-kabob” for nutritional balance to a meal! Canned fruits in natural juice, pudding, yogurt, dried fruit and yogurt-covered raisins are other good options. Add some crunch with pretzels, pita chips, granola, popcorn, or trail mix.
Don’t forget the importance of a healthy beverage. Low fat milk and chocolate milk, soy milk or nut milks (almond, cashew)—even pea milk—are good options for a healthy lunchtime beverage. Check the nutrition facts label, and make sure if you choose a non-dairy milk product it contains a comparable amount of Vitamin D and calcium, which are essential for the development of healthy bones and teeth!
Water is the best choice to maintain hydration. If your children don’t like water, add frozen fruit to help keep it cold and give it some natural flavor. Sports drinks are full of sugar and calories and are not necessary for routine hydration.
So start this school year off with a new approach to packing fun, healthy school lunches for your children!
Barb Walsh, R.D., is the community nutrition educator in the Tevis Center for Wellness.