Back to school is almost upon us, which means many more kid-free hours during the day (amen!) but it also means a bit more of a hectic morning routine, especially if you’re in charge of packing lunches. There’s nothing worse than rolling out of bed and scrambling to pack your kids’ lunch, only to find out that a) your fridge is empty or b) your kid refuses to eat anything you have to offer. As if you don’t have enough to think about during those crucial morning moments. While you might assume that throwing some snacks and a sandwich in a bag is a fairly simple task, it’s a lot harder than it seems. You have picky kids to please. And nutrition recommendations. And judge-y parents who will surely shame you for sending anything with artificial coloring. And did we mention picky kids?
Packing a balanced, delicious and appealing school lunch is an art form. And ideally, if that masterpiece could be pulled together in under 5 minutes, that would be excellent.
Luckily, we have gathered some of the best, most well balanced, delicious, good-for-you and impossible-to-mess up school lunches around. They’re easy to make, inexpensive to stock up on, adorable, fresh and dare we say it — your kids will love them. So as you gear up for the first day of school and you start to prepare your school lunch meal plans, consider these tips, tricks and tasty treats which are sure to make your child the most envied kid at the lunch table.
The Importance of a Nutritious School Lunch
As a kid, the only aspect of lunchtime you cared about was what treats your parents packed for you and who you got to sit next to. You had zero concern about the calories or nutrients you were consuming. But as a parent, now that’s all you think about. Especially considering recent findings about the impact of school lunches on a child’s weight, and the rise in childhood obesity in the US. The CDC reports that in the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s. And nearly 1 in 5 school-age children and young people (6 to 19 years) in this country has obesity. While various factors contribute to this fact, including genetic predisposition, there are several environmental factors we can control, one of which being school lunches.
Back in 2011 a study found that “kids who ate school lunches were 29% more likely to be obese than kids who brought lunch from home.” This finding indicates that in addition to other risk factors (such as genetics or sedentary lifestyles) the quality of the meals served for school lunches was contributing to obesity in kids. During the Obama administration, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 dedicated funding to improving the quality of school lunches and required school lunch programs to double the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables in each meal.
It really makes you reconsider what you thought was an acceptable school lunch for your kids, right? Suddenly that bag of potato chips seems like a poor choice for a snack, or at the very least, it should be balanced out with a piece of fresh fruit.
And that’s really what it’s all about. Moderation. Just as adults try to practice healthy eating habits and indulge in moderation, children need to learn to do the same. It’s all about balance, and good habits start at a young age, both when we lead by example and when we expose kids to smart choices while they are young. “The habits we develop as children, even as young as two and three, strongly influence the behavior we carry into adulthood,” explains Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor in public health at the University of South Florida. “This is why establishing healthy lifestyle behaviors in childhood is critical to preventing obesity and other diseases in the future.”
Dietitian and mom of three, Sarah Remmer, explains to Today’s Parent that the key to a healthy kid’s lunch is nutrition, variety, and balance. “Aim for one item from each of the following categories: fruit, veggie, whole grain, meat or alternative, and dairy or alternative,” she suggests. And definitely, include protein-rich foods to help keep their energy up throughout the day. She also suggests that you include one little treat, and encourage kids to enjoy their meals with positivity, so there’s no pressure to eat only the nutritious stuff, and they are empowered to make their own healthy choices.
Invest in a Cute and Functional Lunch Box
Once upon time lunch boxes were boring and basic: a tin box with some design on the outside that reflected a favorite superhero or TV character or color. That was then. Now lunch boxes are fancy and functional. They have compartments. They are made of flexible material. They are easy to clean. They are cute and colorful and make packing balanced lunches oh-so-simple. Even your kids will appreciate these lunch boxes. They have sections for fruit, sandwiches, snacks, utensils and even a space for drinks (we’ll touch on the juice debate below). And while it might seem unnecessary, trust us that it is worth every penny to invest in a good, functional lunch box. It will help you with portion control and it will help to keep different foods separate (we all have that kid who throws a fit when flavors mix).
We love this flexible, durable and functional lunch box from LL Bean. It doesn’t hurt that it’s made of incredibly strong, nearly damage-proof material (it’s the same tough material used for the backpacks and other luggage). And it also doesn’t hurt that it comes in a range of fun patterns and colors.
If you’re more into portioning out your kids’ means, this OmieBox bento-style lunch box is a game-changer. It allows you to put small amounts of various different dishes, snacks, and essentials into one lunch box, without mixing or mashing things up together. Plus it has different temperature zones so pasta stays warm while fruit stays chilled. Kids will love that they can get a little bit of everything and parents will love that it’s easy to pack and even easier to clean.
And for the best of both worlds, this Yumbox bento lunch container has 6 sections, is cute and kid-friendly, and the best part, it’s leak-proof! So your dips and sauces won’t spill or mix with your sandwich, and the removable tray makes it easy to clean when your kids come home.
To Juice or not to Juice
We’ll keep this one simple. Say no to juice. Water is always a healthier choice, and while juice may taste good (aka it’s sugary) it’s loaded with empty calories and excessive amounts of sugar that your kids won’t even realize they are consuming. In fact, researchers of a pilot program in New York City found that giving students water with school lunches significantly reduced childhood obesity.
Research shows that consumption of sugary drinks such as juice or soda has led to an increased risk of obesity in the United States and that the more sugary drinks kids have, the more they crave that sugar and the less nutritious food they will consume. “The key here is to reduce the need, dependency, and intenseness of sweet on the taste buds. Like adults, once they go without it for a long enough time, they lose the desire to have it,” said Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who manages the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
When possible, skip the juice or soda, and instead send water with your child’s lunch. And if they refuse to drink plain water, get creative and add a little flavor by infusing the water with fresh fruit (think watermelon, strawberries, pineapple, etc.) and pack it into a spill-proof water bottle.
School Lunch Inspiration that Any Kid Will Enjoy
And now onto the fun part — what exactly should you pack for lunch? While cheese sandwiches and PB&J are tasty, they can get really boring really fast. You need inspiration, out-of-the-box ideas, and delicious recipes to help keep your kids satisfied and keep you sane. When possible, skip the processed snacks, opt for whole grains and load up on fresh produce. Try these delicious recipes that are sure to make lunchtime more fun for your kids and packing lunches far less annoying for you.
Taco Tuesday (or Any Day)
This lunch is super simple and perfect for when you have leftovers from taco night — put ground taco meat (beef, turkey or chicken all work), shredded cheese and rice into one section of the lunch box, put salsa or sliced tomatoes in another, guacamole or avocado slices in another, and provide soft taco shells on top so your kids can build their own tacos at lunchtime. Feel free to improvise and add shredded lettuce, beans or any other taco toppings you prefer.
Food on Sticks
Kids love food on a stick, it’s just more fun to eat that way. You can make fruit kebabs by sliding cut up fruits (grapes, berries, melon etc.) onto a small blunt-edged skewer. You can also make beef or sausage kebabs, or these Asian chicken skewers, which are delicious and simple, and you can make them ahead and have them for lunch and dinner throughout the week.
Instead of a traditional turkey sandwich, make cute, bite-sized turkey pinwheels, which are fun to eat and tasty. Serve the pinwheels with cherry tomatoes, a piece of fresh fruit, some pretzels and yogurt and you’re all set.
If your kid likes to build his or her own bite, then a Mediterranean hummus plate is a perfect school lunch. Simply pack hummus, fresh cut up veggies (we love carrots, cucumbers, celery and tomatoes), whole grain crackers, cubes of cheese and for extra protein, some rolled up slices of turkey.
Rice and Beans
If your kids love rice and beans (ours do) then this is a perfect, easy, nutritious lunch option. Opt for brown rice and black beans, both of which are loaded with fiber and protein. And to stay on theme with Mexican cuisine, you can also provide a healthier cheese quesadilla alongside some fresh fruit.
Breakfast for Lunch
Mini pancakes, a hardboiled egg, fresh fruit and a yogurt make for a balanced breakfast, and they can also be a perfectly balanced lunch. Plus, sometimes the idea of breakfast food mid-day seems like a special treat, so you’ll earn bonus points just for serving healthy foods you already have in the house.
Deconstructed sandwiches are a fun way to break up the routine while still providing your kids with healthy ingredients and nutrients. With these kebabs you’re serving sandwiches in a fresh, fun format. Plus the varieties and flavor options are endless.
Peanut Butter and Banana Sushi
Instead of a PB&J, get creative and a little bit fancy with this banana sushi. You can use peanut butter, soy butter or almond butter if your child goes to a peanut-free school. The recipe is simple: smother a whole-wheat tortilla or flatbread in peanut butter and then roll that around a peeled banana. Slice into bites so it looks like sushi and send to school with kid chopsticks for added fun.
Healthier Chicken Nuggets
Chicken nuggets are always a crowd-pleaser for kids, especially at lunchtime, but they can often be loaded with fat and preservatives. Make healthier chicken nuggets at home using whole-grain breadcrumbs and baking the nuggets rather than frying.
Zoodles and Turkey Meatballs
Forget spaghetti and meatballs, this recipe is healthier and loaded with veggies, some you can see, and some that are hidden. The turkey meatballs have chopped up carrots and zucchini inside (sneaky!) and you can serve them on top of spiralized zucchini noodles instead of traditional pasta.
Pizza Bagel Bites
Skip the frozen pizza or the unhealthy and greasy cafeteria pizza and whip up these easy 5-ingredient pizza bagel bites. To make them even healthier, use whole-wheat bagels and scoop out the extra dough, use low-fat mozzarella cheese, and top with veggies instead of pepperoni.