Employee & Community Health

5 tips for packing a kid-friendly lunch

8/28/2017 by Rose Prissel, RDN, LD

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With school starting, for many families packing lunches gets underway, too. Lunches to tote take some time and planning, but it's doable and often more economical. While parents want to make sure their kids are eating healthy, the kids want something fun and tasty. With these five tips, you can have both!

#1: Consult your kids

  • Give them healthy food options from each food group, but let them make the final decision on what ends up in the lunch box. 
  • Go grocery shopping together and let them (with guidance), choose lunch items for the week ahead. 
  • Make lunch packing a family affair. The night before, gather the kids, the ingredients, the containers and get packing.

#2: Variety + balance = healthy

  • Balance: Using all the food groups (dairy, protein, grains, fruits and vegetables) makes lunch more healthy and fun to eat. Check out My Plate to learn more about each group and how much your child should be eating for a balanced diet. 
  • Variety: Sliced bread or a whole piece of fruit gets so boorrring after a while. Add variety with some of these options: 
    • Fruits: Fresh, frozen (mango chunks or berries), dried, individual fruit cups, baked (apple chips!) or pureed
    • Vegetables: Fresh, frozen (add to soup), baked (kale chips!) or spiralized (experiment, if you have a spiralizer)
    • Lean protein: Baked, roasted or grilled chicken, deli meats, hard-boiled eggs, beans or nuts (know your school's policy on nut allergies)
    • Low-fat dairy: Milk, cheese (cubes, slices, string, "baby" rounds, pre-portioned and packaged options are convenient) or yogurt
    • Whole grains: Pita, sandwich bread, tortillas, wraps and pastas

#3: Healthy can be fun

  • Pick up a few simple or seasonal cookie cutters like stars, circles, hearts or pumpkins and let the kids cut bread, cheese, meats and even lettuce into creative shapes for sandwiches. 
  • Use a melon-baller to shape cantaloupe, watermelon or honeydew or a spiralizer to cut veggies into long, fun-to-eat coils. 
  • Be surprising. Consider a color-themed lunch: Stir a drop of green food coloring into low-fat cream cheese and spread onto a bagel sliced in half; top with slices of green apple. Round it out with celery sticks or broccoli florets and honeydew melon balls. It's easy being green!

#4: Keep snacks simple

  • At the beginning of the week, put mini carrots and other cut-up veggies in snack bags so they're ready to pop into lunch boxes. Stock up on string cheese, yogurt cups and fruit cups. 
  • Click your mouse through all the online options for making your own "baggie" snacks like granola, yogurt-covered raisins and more. For the all-time kid pleaser, Ants on a Log, cut celery into short sticks, fill the groove with peanut butter and top with raisins or craisins. Yum!

#5: Quench their thirst

  • School kids should drink at least six to eight, eight-ounce cups of water a day. 
  • Let the kids pick out a water bottle to carry to school and challenge them to drink the whole thing twice a day. 
  • Freeze bottled water for a cool mid-day refresher. It will help keep foods cold in the lunch box and will be melted by lunch time. 
  • For a flavor boost, add chunks of frozen fruit like strawberries or watermelon or ice cubes made from fruit juice. 

Bonus tip #1: 4 quick lunch ideas

  • Mash 1/3 or 1/2 of a banana into 2 tablespoons peanut butter. Spread on a slice of whole-grain bread or half of a whole-grain bagel. Top with raisins, if you like. 
  • Spread 1/2 of a cinnamon-raisin bagel with 1 tablespoon part-skim ricotta or low-fat cream cheese. Top with sliced apples, strawberries, peaches or mangoes (pack the fruit separately and let the kids assemble at lunchtime). 
  • Mix 1/4 cold chicken chunks,* green grapes sliced in half, 1/2 tablespoon sunflower seeds, a little plain yogurt and season with salt and pepper (and maybe a pinch of cinnamon) and spoon into a whole-wheat pita pocket. 
  • Stir a pinch of taco seasoning into low-fat mayonnaise and spread on a whole-wheat tortilla. Add shredded cheese, cooked chicken chunks, lettuce, chopped tomato (or other taco fillings your kids like). Roll and cut into bite-size segments. 

*When you're baking, roasting of grilling chicken breasts for dinner, make extra and use them in your packed lunches for sandwiches and salads. 

Bonus tip #2: To help keep cold foods cold, use an insulated lunch bag. 

Rose Prissel is a dietician at Mayo Clinic working in pediatric and adult nutrition, which a focus on preventive care, sports nutrition and weight management.