Author: Diane di Costanzo
When kids have lunch away from home-whether at daycare or a junior high cafeteria-you’d like to think they’re eating a nutritious meal. But how do you know that the carefully balanced, portion-controlled lunch they bought didn’t slide straight from tray to trash? Or that the sack you packed wasn’t traded for a couple of comic-character stickers?
The simple answer: Like any of us, kids eat food they find appealing-and ditch the stuff they don’t. To help your children stay on track for healthy lunchtime eating throughout the week, sit down with them on Sunday and review the school lunch menu for the week (if it’s available in advance). After you decide which days they will partake of cafeteria food, plan what you’ll pack for lunches the other days-with their help.
How do you get kids involved? “I take them to the grocery store with me and turn them loose in the produce aisle-to give them the maximum number of choices,” says Rallie McAllister, M.D., M.P.A., a family physician and author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom’s Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim. “If you ask them, ‘Which of these foods will you eat?’ you might be surprised to learn that they tried pineapple at a friend’s house and liked it,” she says.
Above all, healthy lunches “start with a plan,” adds McAllister. Your goal is to pack at least two servings of produce each time you prepare your child’s lunch to help meet the five-a-day requirement. One serving each from the rest of the beneficial groups-dairy, grain and meat or another protein-should fill out the box.
Lunch-Planning Tips Try these easy ways to pack the healthiest, kid-friendly lunches.
- Form a Sunday evening family assembly line. Cut up veggies and set them out on a long counter. Then ask your kids to fill five small plastic bags (or however many lunch-box lunches they’ll bring to school during the upcoming week). Label each bag and have your kids write their names on them.
- Ditto for trail mix. Healthy combinations include nuts, pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, shredded coconut, carob- or yogurt-covered raisins, granola or low-sugar cereal.
- When the lunchbox comes home in the afternoon, have your kids rinse it out (if they’re old enough), then replenish the box with whatever can sit overnight: new baggies of veggies and trail mix, juice boxes with 100% juice and/or a container of healthy dip (see Dips and Dippers below.) Store the box in the refrigerator.
Sandwiches are freshest if made in the morning, and take very little time if the rest of the box is good to go-especially if your children pitch in. (See Downsized Sandwiches below.)
Fresh Ideas to Box It Up
Just for fun, pack a meal on a stick. Cut ingredients into bite-sized pieces and have the kids thread them onto wooden skewers (to be safe, use scissors to cut off the pointed skewer tip). Cover each skewer with plastic wrap for packing.
- Garden Salad: cucumber cubes, whole hard-boiled egg, bell-pepper strips, lettuce frills, pita triangles
- Deli Special: deli meat chunks, cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes, bagel chunks
- Pizza Pie: ham slices, mozzarella cheese balls, cherry tomatoes, bread wedges
- Fruit Stick: whole strawberries, pineapple chunks, watermelon triangles, seedless grapes, melon balls
Young kids and light eaters simply can’t chew their way through the typical sandwich. Here are alternatives to use for sandwiches, featuring cold cuts, PB&J or whatever your little one likes.
- Prepare the sandwich on regular bread, but use a cookie cutter to make a shape-such as a star or heart-to cut out the crust while cutting down the size.
- Try smaller size breads such as dinner rolls or mini-bagels.
- Make pinwheels by preparing a wrap-style sandwich, then slice to create rounds. Stack and wrap tight in plastic wrap.
PB&J Your Way
For some fresh flavor twists, trade your jam for these alternatives:
- Sliced fresh strawberries
- Sliced apples or pears
- Banana slices and a drizzle of honey
- Sliced dates
- American or cheddar cheese
- Shredded carrots with raisins
Mash Your Own Egg Salad
For a super-healthy sandwich, combine two hard-boiled eggs, a big spoonful of cottage cheese and a small spoonful of mayonnaise in a gallon-size plastic zip-shut bag. Add some sliced celery, pickle relish and salt. Let kids “mix” the salad by pressing the bag until salad ingredients are combined. Stuff salad into a pita pocket and add lettuce.
Quick Fruit Fix
Leave the skins on the apples and pears for extra fiber. Cut fruit and pack in plastic deli containers.
- Fall Fruit Salad: apple and pear chunks, red seedless grapes, raisins, lemon juice, sunflower seeds
- Tropical Fruit Salad: melon, pineapple and mango chunks, raspberries, shredded coconut
- Creamy Fruit and Nut Salad: cottage cheese, canned peaches (packed in light syrup), chopped walnuts
Dips and Dippers
Transport dips in small, plastic containers with good, snap-tight lids:
- Dips to try: Store-bought hummus, honey mustard, or plain yogurt drizzled with honey
Dippers to try: Mini carrots, celery sticks, red pepper strips, broccoli florets, whole strawberries, graham crackers, whole wheat crackers