Those frozen sugary sandwiches and mini-packs of cookies and chips may offer an easy solution for quick and simple kids’ lunchboxes, but they are hardly the path to healthy eating to fuel young minds and bodies. Your kids need to pack in servings of healthful foods during their mid-day break, including whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and veggies. These choices—day after day—will nourish their play time, academic concentration, and physical and cognitive development.
I talked to top registered dietitian nutritionists to get their own strategies for how to fill your kids’ lunchboxes with healthful foods your kids will actually eat! Try these tips, and let me know how it works for you.
These Blueberry Millet Muffins are a healthy, yummy addition to your kids’ lunch.
7 Tips for Packing Healthy Kids’ Lunches
These vegan Cowboy Cookies are packed with whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
1. Work with Your Child, Instead of Against Her. Keep in mind that every child is unique, and they go through eating phases and food jags. What they may be in love with last year, may be forbidden this year! So, pick your battles wisely and work with the foods they love, in portions that work. “For my kid, it’s a matter of a little bit of a lot of things. Like most kids, she has particular likes and dislikes. So, I pack small reusable containers of small portions of black olives, baby carrots, chickpeas, homemade chocolate chip flax cookies. If I don’t expect her to eat too much of one thing but small amounts of a few things, then we’re both happy,” says Jean LaMantia, RD.
Recreate favorites, such as a really good veggie burrito.
2. Recreate a Winning Meal. If you know your child adores a particular healthful dish, whether it’s a grilled veggie wrap with hummus from your local sandwich shop or a taco bowl on your Taco Tuesday night at home, try to recreate that experience in the lunch box. “My daughter loves getting salads from places where you choose your add-ins, so I try to recreate the ‘salad scene’ at home. Her ideal lunch is Romaine lettuce—I chop to get more in the container, avocado, edamame and corn kernels with a squirt of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. Veggies, protein, healthy fat…in a BPA-free disposable container!” says Wendy Kaplan, MS, RDN, CDN.
3. Don’t Forget Classic Kids’ Favorites. It’s great to try to fit in an occasional eclectic choice, such as avocado toast or an acai bowl, in your child’s lunchbox every now and again. But don’t let that overshadow classic kids’ favorites that have got it going on! “I go for the Monkey Club-soft whole grain bread, smooth peanut butter, with thinly sliced banana. Preferred sides: baby carrots, dried pea snacks, and a clementine for dessert,” says Emily Camiener, MPH, RDN of Diet Detroit.
Serve up fresh veggies with a fun hummus, such as this Pistachio Hummus.
4. Include Kids in on the Lunch Making. How can your child make a fuss about lunch if they are in on the decision-making and packing? Let them have a little bit of fun with lunch-packing. “A lot of little things makes for a more fun lunch! Fruit: blueberries, melon cubes, strawberries, grapes, raisins/dried cranberries, or applesauce; veggies: carrots, cucumber slices, red peppers and dip or a salad; protein: cashews or almonds or PB on bread or tortilla, hummus to go with veggies, black beans or garbanzo beans. Letting my daughter pick how her veggies are cut keeps things fun too. She has a divided container she loves to fill, and also likes having little snack bags, both rectangle and square,” says Sarah Chapel, RDN, CDE.
5. Put the Fun in Lunch Foods. Why serve plain apples and raisins, when you can create an apple face with raisin eyes (slice apples in vertical “face-shaped” slices, spread with peanut butter, and add raisins for eyes and mouth)? There are all sorts of ways you can make a traditional stand-by just a little bit more adventurous—and tempting. “I used to pack my girls ‘hummus wheelies’. Take a whole wheat tortilla, spread your favorite hummus, add a few spinach leaves. Roll up and cut into two-inch spirals. Serve with baby carrots and other veggies or fruit on the side,” says Lisa Cicciarello Andrews, RDN, of Sound Bites Nutrition.
Include a yummy, veggie chili in a thermos, with baked tortilla triangle as dippers.
6. Think Beyond the Sammie. Who says fun, healthy kids’ foods have to be limited to what’s between two slices of bread? Why not make a grain bowl, a chunky soup or chili, or pasta? “Cooked whole wheat pasta or brown or wild rice is a good base. You can then add cooked veggies, beans, lentils, and seasonings. Use a Thermos to keep the meal hot,” says Melissa Altman-Traub, MS, RDN, LDN.
This recipe for Peanut Butter Chocolate Chickpea Bars contains a whole can of chickpeas.
7. Don’t Forget Kids Like Beans. Think your kid won’t eat beans? Well, hummus. Kids are in love with this super-interactive dip, made of…beans. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “I use beans in a variety of ways. I often smash black beans with avocado in sprouted grain tortilla for a no-cook quesadilla and rely on bean-based pastas, too. It’s easy to mix in cooked spinach with either,” says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN of Kelly Jones Nutrition.
For other kid-friendly plant-based recipes, try out some of my favorites:
Baked Pear Trail Mix
Chocolate Zucchini Power Muffins
Vegetable Stone Soup
Image: Spicy Hummus Veggie Tacos, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
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