With the stresses of another new school year, packing a healthy lunch for your kids can feel as tough as a final exam. But don’t give up and reach for the PB&J just yet. There are plenty of healthy school lunch ideas to tempt young taste buds.
The keys to any healthy school lunch are portion size and variety, says Jill Kammerer, a registered dietician at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Because portion size varies by age, weight and activity level, Kammerer suggests visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate site for suggested menu plans and calorie requirements. Once you know how much your children should be eating, try these tips to find a good mix of lunch choices they won’t trade with their friends.
A healthy lunch should have a mix of protein (meat, beans or nuts), vegetables or salad, fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, whole grains (rice, pasta or bread) and dairy or vitamin D-fortified soy products.
Get Your Child’s Input
Ask your child to help plan her lunches for the week, or take her grocery shopping and encourage her to pick something new. Suggest themes, such as Spanish-food week. “If they feel involved, they’re more likely to eat it,” Kammerer says.
Make Healthy Swaps
Create your own nutritionally superior versions of packaged meals. For instance, instead of buying prepackaged deli lunches — which are both pricey and high in sodium and preservatives — go to the deli counter and get slices of lean roast beef or turkey and low-fat cheese. Add whole-wheat crackers, and your kids can make their own mini-sandwiches!
Try Variations of Old Favorites
Take a break from peanut butter in the classic PB&J and use almond or cashew butter instead. Both of these are equally high in protein, and almond butter is also rich in vitamin E. Or put your child’s favorite lean cold cuts and cheese in a tortilla for a quick wrap; slice it, and you have fun-to-eat pinwheels. Spread tomato sauce in a pita pocket and add shredded low-fat mozzarella and veggies for a lunch pizza.
Watch for Added Sugars
Fruit cups are often packed in sugary syrup, and fruit strips are usually “fruit” in name only. For healthy school lunches, choose fresh fruit or fruit cups in natural juices to keep.
“Get them used to things that are fresh,” Kammerer says. “The younger you start, the better.” Let your kids dip raw vegetables into reduced-fat sour cream jazzed up with spices, or have them choose fresh fruits and nuts for a homemade trail mix.
Make Them “App”-y
Kids love to nibble, so a lunch of appetizers should be a hit. Try baked pita chips with hummus or fresh salsa, cheese cubes and frozen grapes.
Pack Smart Sweets
Flavored gelatin, low-fat pudding, a homemade oatmeal-raisin cookie or graham crackers will all satisfy your kids’ sweet tooth without an excess of fat and calories (save the cupcakes for class parties!). But, adds Kammerer, “If your child is overweight, fruit needs to be the dessert.”
Have Fun with Presentation
Divided plastic containers can help if you have an eater who doesn’t want certain foods to touch. Colorful plastic wrap instead of a resealable plastic bag is sure to bring a smile. And be sure to add a riddle or an “I Love You” note once in a while — it’s a perfect no-calorie surprise!
Valerie Kalfrin is a writer in the Tampa, Fla., area. Her work has appeared in The Tampa Tribune, Ladies’ Home Journal, Poynter.org and 83DegreesMagazine.com. She has previously contributed to Life & Beauty Weekly.