Packing a healthy lunch that your child will actually eat shouldn't be one of the hardest parts of the new school year. But with dietary restrictions, kids' finicky tastes and a general lack of new ideas, making lunch can be a dreaded nightly (or let's face it, first thing in the morning while pouring cereal) chore. Thankfully, there are some easy ideas you can put into rotation and none of them involve those prepackaged lunch meals with mystery meats or candy-flavored yogurts.
The key to packing a great school lunch is to involve all of the food groups and to keep things colorful. This way, your kid will not only be getting the energy they need to get through the school day but they'll also be getting all the nutrients that are so vital to their development.
"My rule for school lunches is that they should include a main dish (sandwich, pasta, wrap, etc.), a fruit, a veggie, something crunchy (like seaweed, Pirate’s Booty, veggie chips or Harvest Snaps) and something fun," Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a mom of three, nutrition expert and author of "Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen" told TODAY Food. "The fun thing could be a small treat, or it might be a sticker or a note or a joke of the day!"
Another idea is to try a twist on an old classic like PB&J. Many schools no longer allow peanut butter due to nut allergies, and since the sugar content of jelly can be through the roof, it's not exactly the healthiest choice on a day-to-day basis. Instead, a Sunflower Butter & Grape Sandwich gives kids the same sweet and savory combo they love, just in healthier form. Largeman-Roth suggested adding apple slices to a sandwich or pita instead of jelly or jam. "They get plenty of added sugar elsewhere!"
As for foods to avoid, Largeman-Roth said it depends on the kid. "If you know that your child won’t eat a cheese stick unless it’s super cold from the fridge, skip it," she said. "Once you’ve thrown something out 10 times, it doesn’t make sense to keep packing it. Also, anything that’s difficult or time-consuming to eat should be avoided--kids are only given about 15-20 minutes to eat lunch (some of that time is used just getting to the cafeteria), so you want them to get to most of the items you’ve packed."
When it comes to hot lunch or cold lunch, Largeman-Roth said they can both have a place in your kid's rotation.
"Cold lunch ideas include sandwiches and wraps, but I also love packing a soba noodle or chickpea pasta salad with edamame for my daughter who doesn’t eat meat," she said. "I like using Banza chickpea pasta, which has 20g of protein per serving and is a great way to make sure your picky eaters are getting enough protein. I also love making a bento-style lunch for my kids because it’s easy and it’s fun, plus it promotes variety. I like including grapes, which hold up well in a lunch box and provide natural energy, plus hydration, baby carrots or sugar snap peas for the veggie because they’re colorful and easy for kids to pick up, plus whole grain crackers, cheese and an individual container of hummus."
Consider hot lunches as the weather gets cooler. "You just need to have a sturdy heat-safe container that your child can open and close by themselves," said Largeman-Roth. "Have them practice at home before you send them off to school with it. You can heat rice and beans, soup or pasta with sauce in the microwave, and then transfer to the thermos or container. Don’t forget to include a spork!"
And even if you're not that mom who cuts her kids' food into fun and exciting shapes, consider making these Heart-Shaped Pita Chips with your children. Chances are, if they're involved in the cooking or baking of their lunch items, they'll be more likely to actually eat them!
Here are some more lunch ideas to put into your school year rotation:
These adorable rolls are surprisingly easy to make.
Ham and cheese make up the filling but you could easily swap them out for turkey or whatever your child likes.
These taste so good hot or cold so don't worry if your child can't reheat them!
These look like a professional creation but all you need is cheese, nori wrappers and kitchen shears.
No kid will refuse pasta in their lunch. Bonus: they'll also be getting their vegetables!
When most kids try hummus it's a home run!
Replace the meat with this recipe that's tasty and good for them, too.
Great in their lunchbox or as an after-school snack these little energy balls will keep your kid running til dinnertime.