Since my oldest son started kindergarten this year I have worked on packing healthy lunches for him, but also packing items he will actually eat. My oldest son is a picky eater, so I have spent many evenings opening his lunch box to discover he didn’t eat much of what I packed for him. I realize that packing healthy lunches is only HALF of the challenge. It does no good to pack something your child won’t eat (even with repeat attempts), and it feels wasteful. If you’re concerned about what your child eats or doesn’t eat at school, consider the following tips:
Incorporate All Food Groups
When choosing a healthy diet, it’s important to consider moderation, variety, and balance. A balanced diet includes food from all the food groups. While you know (or will find out) which foods from each group your child will eat, here are some ideas for school lunch-friendly options:
Try fresh carrot, celery, or zucchini sticks with dip (hummus, ranch dressing, etc.).
Add healthy greens to sandwiches (no iceberg lettuce – it lacks nutrients).
Add bell peppers, carrot, and/or broccoli to a whole grain pasta salad.
Make kale chips. This may take a few attempts, but let your kids see you eating them too. Play it off like they are your new “fun” snack chips.
Dice up fresh fruit like apples, pears, watermelon, pineapple, peaches, etc.
Include fresh or frozen berries like raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, etc. This is usually an easy sell, even for picky eaters. My boys both enjoy pomegranate as well.
Add banana to a peanut butter sandwich (if nut butters are allowed at your child’s school). If not, try adding a few chocolate chips to a banana, which counts as a fruit serving but is also a special treat.
Add baked chicken or turkey to sandwiches, or serve by itself if your child prefers.
Add deli meats to sandwiches, but use caution as many of these can be very processed with added preservatives, dyes, fillers, and nitrates. Here are some helpful tips for choosing better cold cut meats.
Give your child hard boiled or deviled eggs
If nuts are allowed at your child’s school, you can give them ¾ – 1 cup of nuts or seeds. Surprisingly, my kids have grown to adore peanuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds.
Beans count! Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas and lentils, though technically considered legumes, can be considered a vegetable or protein according to MyPlate.
Give your child a single serving of low-fat milk without added sweeteners. Or, if you include a sweetened milk beverage, limit added sugars elsewhere in the child’s diet.
Calcium-fortified soy milk or almond milk are good options for children who do not tolerate dairy well.
Try giving them pieces of different cheeses they enjoy. You can purchase small single serving cheese sticks or pieces, but I often buy a huge block and cut it into cheese “stick” form.
Yogurt is calcium-rich but also contains healthy probiotics. Beware: some store-bought yogurt has a lot of added sugar or even fake fruit. Here is good advice for choosing a healthier yogurt.
Try different whole grain sandwich breads, pitas, and tortillas at home and see which ones your child prefers. Use these in place of refined or enriched grains in their lunches.
Whole grain pasta is a great option for lunches, especially pasta salads that are best served cold.
Use whole grain bagels or English muffins and let your child assemble a mini pizza for lunch.
Get Your Kids Involved
This topic goes along with my tips for picky eaters. Give your kids healthy food options from each food group and let them make the final decisions on what goes in their lunch. Take your child grocery shopping with you and give them some liberty in choosing items for your shopping cart. Giving them a sense of responsibility and empowerment is very helpful! Let your kids actually pack the lunch with you – spend time with them the night before to get lunch packed for the following day. You can also involve them by making your own healthy homemade snacks at home. I know my kids are more interested in eating the food items they helped create.
Make it Fun
Maybe this goes without saying, but kids love to have fun. You can buy specially made sandwich cutters that will turn their normal bread into fun shapes like trains, hearts, etc. You can also try using cookie cutters. You can make kid-friendly “kebabs” using kid-friendly skewers – here are a few ideas. Melon-ballers are an easy tool for making fruit look more fun. Maybe kids also think it’s fun to dip foods, so consider adding one of their favorite dips to encourage healthy eating.
Give them Variety
As mentioned before, variety is an important component of a healthy diet. Make sure you’re rotating through lunch ideas as much as possible. Keep track of your child’s favorites and pack those (after all, we want “successful” lunches that your child actually eats), but add new things too. When choosing new foods to try, consider the tastes and textures your child already enjoys and find similar, yet different, items.
The Amazing “Bento Box”
There are many options for lunch boxes these days, but I am a huge fan of the reusable bento-type boxes (like Yumbox). You can find these online in many different price ranges. You can also purchase plastic or stainless steel depending on your preference. I love these boxes because they keep food from being smashed in a book bag and they keep it separated and organized.