Isn’t it funny how once you bring your awareness to something you see that thing everywhere you go? I went to coffee with a friend the other day and she mentioned that she would love to see a blog about healthy kids’ lunch ideas. This is something I had been thinking about featuring on my Facebook, but writing a whole blog about it hadn’t crossed my mind. Since then, several other people have mentioned how handy this information would be. Brilliant, you guys! Let’s do this.
The first step to packing a healthy lunch that your kids will actually want to eat is to let them make some of the choices. What do they like? Bring them shopping or have them help you make a list. Encourage them to make a couple of selections from each of the following categories:
- Colorful veggies
- Fruits and berries
- High fiber carbohydrate
They might want to choose junk like chips, cookies, or candy, but keeping these sorts of things to a minimum is key. I have listed some better alternatives below. I explain that food is fuel. If you put good food in, you feel good. If you put junk food in, you feel junky. I ask my little how she wants to feel. Kids know what foods are good for them. Anytime I have spoken to groups of kids and ask what foods are healthy, not one has said “bread” or “cookies.” All of them say fruits and vegetables.
I have found that a lunch container with bento box style compartments works amazing. That way you can portion out the items, and there is no danger of food touching (kids hate that). Plus, you can be creative without spending the extra time on cutesy touches. Attractive food always goes over better than food smashed into ziplock baggies. Plus, no squished sandwiches, soggy veggies, or demolished crisps.
Lunch is super flexible, but there is a general formula that I like to follow for a healthy, happy kid. I opt for veggies most, protein next, then low glycemic fruit, high fiber carbs and sugary fruit are last. This is a formula for sustained energy and better performance. Here are some of my go-to ideas:
- Cucumbers (my little loves the baby cucumbers!)
- Carrots (I cut up carrots rather than using baby carrots, they’re cheaper and taste better. Try different colors!)
- Different colors of bell pepper or sweet peppers
- Broccoli florets
- Celery (with Laughing Cow Cheese, sunflower seed butter, or hummus)
- Grape or cherry tomatoes (this should probably go under “fruit”, but I let it slide)
- Hard-boiled eggs (peeled)
- Deli-meat roll-ups (deli meat wrapped around cheese–I use 1/3 of a slice of cheese to one piece of deli meat)
- Pinwheels–get creative with meat, cheese, and veggies!
- Leftover chicken
- Tuna salad
- Baby Bell cheese
- Shelled sunflower seeds
- Leftover homemade soup (they make a cute, kid-sized thermos for this purpose)
- Hummus dip
- Low-glycemic Fruit
- Berries–lots of berries!
- High fiber carbs and sugary fruit
- Half sandwiches on sprouted grain bread (I get Ezekiel Bread. It’s easy to find in the freezer section.)
- Sliced apples
- Sliced pears
- Kiwi (peeled–the bento box comes in handy with these)
- Banana (Try making banana pinwheels–spread sunflower butter on a whole grain tortilla, wrap it around a banana and slice it!)
- Clementines or orange sections
- Terra Plantain chips (a better choice than potato chips)
- Dried and “popped” beans (search for Chickpeatos on Amazon)
- Vegan Bob’s puffed veggies (a better choice than Pirate’s Booty and they taste better!).
- Veggie chips (not the veggie straws, actual chips made from veggies. Make your own or try Vegan Bob’s)
- Seaweed snacks or cut up Nori sheets (my kid loves them!)
Kids get plenty of sugar and other junk throughout the day thanks to food rewards and sub-optimal snack times (angry face), so I rarely pack a dessert, processed carbs like pretzels, or items full of vegetable oils like traditional chips. Sugar gives immediate energy but causes an energy crash later on, leading to disciplinary issues or sleepiness. Highly processed carbohydrates, sugar, and unhealthy oils are certainly not conducive to high-performance learning. Instead, I use fruit and yogurt as dessert and healthier varieties or homemade versions of crisps in place of traditional varieties.
Make Lunch Assembly Easy
In order to have a smooth morning, try these tips to pack your healthy, happy lunch.
- Pack lunch the night before
- Slice veggies and fruits ahead of time and store them in the fridge
- Be sure to have everything you need on hand
- Use leftovers that will be yummy cold like sliced chicken, tuna salad, or fried rice
- Pack soup or warm casserole in a fun thermos (they make cute kid-sized ones now!)
- Use naturally kid-size produce like clementines, little sweet peppers, and baby cukes (baby carrots aren’t naturally that size–save money by buying regular size carrots and cutting them up ahead of time)
- Don’t forget the drink! See healthy tips below.
Smart mom tip: To keep sliced apples from turning brown, add them to a bowl with 4 cups of cold water and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Soak for 5-10 minutes. They don’t taste lemony, and are naturally preserved for lunchtime!
Pre-packaged lunch items are easy, but not always the healthiest choice. Products like yogurt, deli meat, and nut (or seed) butters are notorious for unsavory additives. Here are some things to look for. Remember to read the back of the label, not the marketing claims on the front of the package!
My general guidelines for packaged products are:
- Less than 8g of sugar
- Preferably more fiber than sugar
- No high fructose corn syrup
- No artificial colors or flavors
- No artificial sweeteners
- No partially hydrogenated oils or polyunsaturated oils that aren’t specifically listed (this is a biggie with me and it’s in everything)
- Non-GMO. Especially for products containing soy or corn.
- Silly additives. Like corn in yogurt or things you can’t pronounce.
Drinks. I am always searching for the item with the least amount of sugar that my kid will still tolerate. Take juice for example. Juice is packable and the kids love it, but it’s so high in sugar! Of course, water is best, but if you can’t get away with that there are other decent options. I look for the juice with the least amount of sugar. At this time that is Honest Kids juice. It has 8-9 grams of sugar (as compared to the 24-30 grams in most juices), no high fructose corn syrup (yes, it matters), and she likes it. If your kid is a milk drinker, I like Horizon Organic white or chocolate milk.
Yogurt. The single serving yogurt packages are excellent choices for lunch, but watch out for sugar. Kids like the kind of yogurt with flavors, but so many of these are super high in sugar. The best one I have found–besides adding berries to the plain Greek or Icelandic yogurt–is Chobani Kids. It has 6g of carbohydrates and 5g of protein with no high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, or sweeteners.
Nut and seed butter. This is another excellent lunch choice, but also another source of hidden sugars. Don’t be fooled by the product being organic, either. Cane sugar is still sugar. I like Sunbutter sunflower butter the best, even though it is super expensive. First of all, it is allowed in nut-free classrooms. Second, the regular variety has 3g of sugar and the organic version has less than 1g total sugar. It is natural seed butter, so the oil rises to the top. Stir it up with a butter knife nut butter stirrer before using it.
Deli Meat. This is another source of added sugar and all sorts of other creepy fillers. The thing I look for on deli meat ingredient lists is carrageenan. It is in almost every packaged deli meat on the market (as well as some yogurts, cottage cheese, and most non-dairy soy and nut milk). Even the organic and natural varieties have it since it is derived from seaweed. It is an emulsifier and makes the meat stick together better. Unfortunately, it is highly inflammatory. Even though “more studies need to be done” to conclusively prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that carrageenan is harmful to humans, it has been linked to IBS, colon cancer, bloating, food allergies, and gallbladder disease. The only variety of deli meat I have found near me that does not contain carrageenan is Primo Taglio which is the Safeway store brand. Read the label, though. Not all varieties are carrageenan-free and companies change their products all of the time.
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