Schools around the country are re-examining their cafeteria menus to find ways to improve nutrition and encourage healthy eating. Parents—especially those who send their kids off to school with packed lunches—are doing the same. So what can you do to provide your kids better choices at noontime?
Making delicious, fun, nutritious and satisfying lunches every day for your children can be a daunting task. Then again, no one knows your child’s nutritional needs like you do; lunches from home ensure that special diets, if any, are met. Packed lunches also let you tailor the menu to your child’s schedule. Phys ed today? Include a lean, protein-rich turkey sandwich. Test this afternoon? You may want to avoid heavy carbs that can cause an energy drop after lunch.
Contrary to what many parents think, kids will eat healthy lunches. How? The answer is to not make lunchtime the moment of truth. Like so many things, good habits begin at home—namely at breakfast, dinner, and snack times. If your children get used to eating fresh, non-processed food other times of the day, they won’t be surprised by the wholesome food in their lunch bags because it’s what they’re used to.
Nutritious (and Fun) Lunch-Packing Tips
Here are some great lunch-packing tips to not only keep your kids well-fed and happy, but also on the road to excellent eating habits:
1. Shake up PB&J
There’s a lot of good in peanut butter and jelly (try to go with spreads or jams over jelly, as they have real fruit). But to add variety, try replacing the jelly with banana, apple, or pear slices.
2. "Produce” a great lunch
There are so many fabulous veggies out there—carrots, celery, cucumbers, peppers, even broccoli. I fill a container with carrots and celery every day for my two kids, ages 9 and 11—and they eat them. Legumes, from chickpeas to edamame, have the protein to power kids throughout the day.
3. Freeze fruit
Freezing fruit the night before does double duty—it keeps other food in the lunch container cold through the morning, and thaws in time for eating during the lunch hour. Almost any fruit can be frozen, including watermelon, strawberries, honeydew, mandarin oranges, pineapple, cranberries, and apples (go with sliced vs. whole apples).
4. Make age-appropriate meals
With growing kids it’s just as important to avoid portion sizes that are too small, as too large. Appetites in both girls and boys surge around the time of puberty, for instance. But regardless of age, kids need balanced meals with food from all the major groups.
5. Ditch the sandwich
There’s nothing wrong with bread; in fact there are “kid-healthy” white breads that are packed with vitamins and calcium, making them great options along with whole-grain varieties. But salads, vegetable pitas, and even veggies with high protein dips like hummus can deliver excellent nutritional value.
Once you’ve started broadening your child’s food horizons—and perhaps your own as well—you may want to monitor the nutritional content of the lunches you’re packing. There are any number of excellent calorie counters you can find online.
Eric Clark is Chief Operating Officer of Tossed®. He also packs lunches for his two children, ages 9 and 11, every morning.