10 Healthy Ways to Perk Up Kids’ Lunches

By Radha Marcum, Senior Editor

“Now my son is shunning bread,” a mom friend of mine lamented recently. We were sipping weak, though refreshing, cocktails over a three-month-delayed birthday dinner. “Wraps are tricky; rice is no good cold. . . . Do you have any ideas?” At that moment, it would have been easier to answer, “What is the square root of 3?” I told her I would think about it.

I was still under the spell of summer, when fresh fruit and veggies abound, easy to enjoy without much preparation or fuss. In summer, we tend to graze. But school starts mid-August here in Colorado. The lunch problem was looming for all of us.

Lucky for us, school “hot” lunches have come a long way. No nasty slop and Tater Tots of my youth. They have salad bars with locally sourced, farm-to-table veggies and totally from-scratch healthy entrées courtesy of the School Food Project (led by Chef “the Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper). Seriously, they make the cheese sauce for the mac from scratch!

But my kids still insist on packing their own lunch a lot of the time. And like most small humans, they harbor strong preferences. They are sometimes maddeningly inconsistent. Pickiness is a top challenge, but achieving variety (I never want to make, or even smell, another PB&J) when we’re tight on time is probably our biggest. The third is the small amount of time they have to actually eat their lunch—about ten minutes. Often, half or more of the lunch will come home uneaten.

So, for my dear friend, and for all moms and dads who struggle to stay sane in the first two hours of the day, here are a few of our most successful lunch strategies to get wholesome nutrients into their children’s growing bodies.

  1.  Can you say crudités? We slice up standbys to have on hand: carrots, celery, cucumbers, bell peppers. Baby carrots are the standby of all standbys. Guiding principle: Kids like things unmixed. My son will eat cucumbers in simple rounds, but with cheese and spread between two slices of bread he won’t touch them. Another mom friend had a similar experience with avocado—spread on toast it was a no-go, but in guacamole . . . well, her boy couldn’t get enough!
  2. Dip in. If your child is more adventurous (that would be my daughter), pack sliced veggies with a spread or dip, like hummus. Have time to make your own? There are hundreds of variations on kid-appealing bean dips (such as hummus), creamy avocado dressings, or Greek yogurt–based dips. A plus: All of these contain protein and healthy fats, to keep energy levels steady and help them stay full longer.
  3. Switch up nut butter. With peanut allergies on the rise, many schools have banned peanuts in any form, anyway. Besides, who wants another PB&J? Try sunflower, cashew, almond, or soy-nut butters. Each of these contains varying amounts of brain-healthy unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Avoid those with added sugars and fats, such as palm oil, whenever possible.
  4. Think lunch at dinner. Some foods make better leftovers than others: Whole-grain spaghetti (aside from rice-based pasta, which gets stiff and chalky when refrigerated), roasted root vegetables, potato or other non-leafy salads, stir-fried veggies with soba noodles, whole-grain pilafs, and bean-based dishes make fabulous lunches. Then you can ditch the sandwich altogether.
  5. Pack in protein. We follow a vegetarian diet, which adds a bit more challenge. If the lunch doesn’t already contain beans or dairy, we’ll toss in a hard-boiled egg, cheese cubes, or savory baked organic tofu. It’s easy to make your own (just bake tofu slices or cubes with soy sauce, garlic, and other spices at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes); but there are fantastic ready-to-eat options too. Vegan sausages, sandwich meats, and burger/hot-dog alternatives are only getting better. Look for Sweet Earth Foods or Field Roast brands.
  6. Watch the concentrated, added sugars. Include whole fruits, not fruit-based snacks. I don’t allow my kids juice because fructose without the fiber and other nutrients of a whole fruit spikes blood sugar and causes crankiness later in the day. Be wary of kid-friendly bars and yogurts. It’s recommended that kids get no more than 12–20 grams of added sugars per day (including “evaporated cane juice”). That’s about 12 grams for children under eight, and 20 grams for preteens. Those numbers seems generous until you consider that your average flavored yogurt contains 12–20 grams (when you subtract naturally occurring milk sugars). The average bowl of cereal contains 10–15. Plus, most breads contain 2–3 grams per slice, ketchup another 3–4 grams, tomato sauce 5–10 grams . . . you get the picture.
  7. To help avoid sugar, add salty-crunchy foods. Eastern cooking philosophies emphasize the variety of tastes in a single meal—sweet, salty, pungent, etc. Kids like a variety of textures too. For salty, crunchy bites (without overdoing the added fat or sodium), try popcorn, rice cakes, seaweed snacks, and low-sodium whole-grain crackers.
  8. Spoiled—or not. I know that parents are not supposed to get upset about food left on the plate or in the lunchbox (which teaches kids not to pay attention to their own sense of “full”), but I do really hate to see wholesome foods go to waste, especially when I know that those organic strawberries cost $4.99 per half-pound. So I do splurge on a few individually packaged foods, such as nut-butter pouches and low-sugar snack bars. Roasted nuts or a small amount of dried fruits from bulk also can survive more than eight hours. Which leads me to . . .
  9. Lunch as a snack. I ask my kids to eat uneaten lunch items before offering new foods when they get home. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything gets eaten, but they do get the point—and it does reduce the amount of food that ends up in the compost pile.
  10. Explore. We encourage our kids to peruse our stack of go-to cookbooks that contain fast and portable options, including Vegan Lunch Box Around the World (Da Capo, 2009), Super Natural Every Day (Ten Speed, 2011), and Short-Cut Vegan (William Morrow, 2008). Let them make choices and experiment with new combos. Sure, making lunch can be a teaching time—about balance, variety, the importance of fresh foods, etc.—but give kids lots of freedom to discover new tastes. And don’t worry if they still just want PB&J. It’s really OK.


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