September 4, 2018

Tips for healthy — and tasty — school lunches

Contributed by Sue Heikkinen, RD

As a grade schooler, I proudly toted my school lunches in a metal Yogi Bear lunchbox. Lunches alternated between a bologna and mustard or PB&J sandwich on white bread, rounded out with juice and chips. (As a child, this future dietitian was not one bit concerned about the lack of fruits and vegetables.) While not as fun as a Yogi Bear box, many kids’ lunch bags are now so stylish they could double as a fashionable tote.

No matter what your kids’ lunch bag looks like, it’s what is inside that counts, right? Consider some stress-free strategies to boost the nutrition and increase the chances the lunch will get eaten, not traded or tossed.

Plan ahead

Plan for morning chaos, that is. Invest a little time to make mornings less of a hassle:

Review the school menu with your child to choose which days a lunch will be packed

Keep a “grab and go” drawer in the fridge. Stock it with yogurt, fruit cups and prewashed fruit and veggies. Consider keeping a bin filled with individual portions of popcorn, whole grain pretzels, granola bars and other non-perishable snacks in your pantry.

Repurpose leftovers for the next day’s lunch. Toss leftover pasta and chopped veggies with dressing and add chopped chicken, edamame or tuna for protein. Soups can be reheated and put in a thermos in the morning.

Have the right equipment. Stock up reusable containers, snacks and sandwich bags. A bento box or portioned container makes packing easier and lessens the chances the food will get “squished.” Pick up some inexpensive forks and spoons at a thrift store. Food just tastes better with real utensils, and the stakes are low if they don’t make it back home.

Make it fun

But don’t make it impossible. Can’t see yourself carving sandwiches into cartoon-character shapes when you can barely get yourself out the door? No guilt needed. However, a few small touches can make lunches more fun.

Give your kid something to dip: include vanilla yogurt for melon slices, hummus for carrot and celery sticks, or peanut butter for pretzels. Peanut butter not allowed at school due to allergy concerns? Consider a tasty alternative such as almond butter or sunflower seed butter.

Serve a sandwich as a pinwheel. Take a tortilla or flattened bread. Place fillings, roll up tightly and slice into “wheels.”

Alternate cheese cubes and fruit or vegetables on a wooden skewer.

Mix it up with a breakfast-type option such as a veggie quiche, breakfast burrito, or a Greek yogurt parfait with fruit, nuts and granola.

Offer whole grain crackers, cheese and turkey slices to stack as a “sandwich,” or taco fixings and a soft tortilla. These are a great alternative to the excess packaging and poor nutrition of premade lunches marketed toward kids.

Need more inspiration?

Try our mix and match template for planning lunch. It’s as simple as choosing a grain, a protein source, adding a fruit or veggie and optional dip, and rounding out with a side and a beverage.

Best Lunch Box Ever by Katie Sullivan Morford, a registered dietitian, is a cookbook full of tasty recipes and ideas, for adults and kids alike.

Browse ChopChop Kids for healthy recipes you and your child can make together.

Or try one of our Food for Health Recipes:

Edamame hummus

Apple lifesavers

Meatless empanadas

Pesto pasta with roasted butternut squash