School is back in session for many children across the country and that means many parents, caregivers and older kids are being faced with the daily task of preparing lunch — whether the kids are learning at home or heading back to a classroom.
Of course, many moms and dads have opened up their kid's lunchbox only to discover that the nutritious lunch they had packed was barely touched. Not only is it a waste of food, but no one wants a kid to go hungry.
Kids, like adults, just want tasty food while parents just want to ensure their kid has a meal that fuels their day. Unfortunately, these goals don't always align. The solution? Make healthier versions of the dishes kids already crave.
We've created four tasty options for every kid (or adult) out there who loves classic comfort food and pretty much refuses to touch anything else. We've also paired them with three to four snack options to ensure that each meal provides a well-rounded mix of essential daily nutrients.
For the kid who only eats chicken fingers
There’s a reason that this popular dish is on every kids’ menu. People just love the crunchy fried coating on these tasty bites. But the version served at most restaurants or the pre-cooked versions available in the freezer aisle are often full of saturated fat and lots of sodium. We created an oven-baked recipe that has all of the flavor kids love without excess breading. Feel free to experiment with the seasonings in the panko coating, too.
How to pack it: Place a folded piece of parchment paper in the lunch container to prevent the tenders from moving around and losing their breading. Also, add a freezer pack to your kid's lunch container, but be sure to place it away from the tenders to prevent condensation forming on the chicken.
- Small container of low-sugar or homemade ketchup for dipping
- Apple slices for vitamin C and fiber
- Baby carrots for beta-carotene and fiber
- 1 cheese stick for extra calcium and protein (the fat also helps kids absorb the beta-carotene in the carrots)
For the kid who only eats pizza
When made simply and served in modest portions, pizza is actually a fairly healthy food. It provides the antioxidant lycopene in the tomato sauce, plus it boasts calcium and protein from the cheese. But, overall, the sodium content tends to be high, especially with salty toppings like pepperoni and sausage. Sugary tomato sauces can hide extra calories, too.
We gave this kid classic a makeover that still hits all the right flavor marks and is super easy for parents (or older kids) to make. Instead of using pepperoni made with beef and pork, we used turkey pepperoni, which has fewer calories and less fat. If your kid like veggies, feel free to top the mini pizzas with whatever they like.
How to pack it: Add a folded layer of parchment paper to a lidded sandwich container and place the pizzas on top.
Serve it with:
- 1/2 cup of sliced bell peppers for extra flavor and vitamin C
- Sliced kiwi for fiber and potassium
- Vegetable chips for a crunchy snack
For the vegetarian or vegan kid
Lots of kids may choose to go vegetarian or vegan at some point in their young lives and some parents are often confused about what to pack for their little one's lunch. How do you ensure your kid is getting enough protein? It can be tough, but one easy way to boost the nutrition in a dish kids already like is by using pasta made with chickpeas.
Compared to traditional wheat pasta, chickpea pasta serves up an additional 6 grams of plant-based protein per serving, plus an extra 3 grams of fiber. This dish is great hot or cold, and you can also skip the Parmesan cheese (just use nutritional yeast instead) if your kiddo is avoiding all animal products.
How to pack it: Place a serving of pasta in a reusable lunch container with a tight-fitting lid. Pack with a reusable or compostable fork.
Serve it with:
- 1/4 avocado (sliced and sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning) for added healthy fat
- Dried seaweed chips for a crunchy snack with iron
- Fresh mango cubes for beta-carotene
For the kid who only eats PB&J sandwiches
Nothing says childhood quite like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But these days, many schools don’t allow any peanut or tree-nut products. And, let’s face it, grape jelly is just grape juice combined with high-fructose corn syrup, with many varieties packing in 12 grams of sugar in just one tablespoon. We gave this classic new life by swapping out peanut butter for nut-free sunflower seed butter and using fresh grapes instead of jelly. We also used whole wheat bread instead of white for added fiber and nutrients. The verdict? It’s still totally delicious!
How to pack it: Pack the sandwich in a reusable lidded container that's large enough to hold the sandwich halves without pressing down on them so the filling won't squish out.
Serve it with:
- Baked pea crisps for added plant protein and fiber
- Cherry tomatoes for lycopene
- Watermelon stars for hydration and potassium
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, is a nutrition and wellness expert, writer, mom of three and bestselling author. Her books include "Feed the Belly," "The CarbLovers Diet" and "Eating in Color." Follow her on Instagram and check out her website.