We all know breakfast may very well be THE most important meal of the day, especially for growing children. But lunch is also important. Having a well-balanced lunch not only provides kids with an opportunity to meet daily food group and nutrient goals, but it helps kids stay energized. It also provides an important opportunity to get key food groups and the nutrients they provide into a kid's day (not to mention his or her stomach as well).
A lot of parents send lunch with their kids to school daily—either out of need or to provide an alternative to lunches provided there. And oftentimes, they think these lunches are healthy. Many may therefore be surprised to learn that there's at least some evidence that lunches brought from home may have a lower nutritional quality than lunches provided at school. A study published in Childhood Obesity found that children who ate lunches brought from home were less likely than those who ate a school lunch to have fruits, vegetables, and dairy for lunch. They were also more likely to have snacks that were higher in sugar and/or fat at lunch.
Fortunately, a little planning and nutrition know-how can go a long way to help you pack a healthy lunch. So before you pack your kids lunch to bring to school, daycare, or even for travel or a weekend outing, check out these 5 tips (and quick ideas) for fun, tasty, nutritious lunch box options from registered dietitian Holley Grainger. They take 5 minutes or less to prepare and are sure to please toddlers and school aged kids—even those with temperamental palates.
1. Get Creative with Veggies.
Don’t get discouraged if the raw baby carrots you pack for lunch day-in and day-out continue to be sent home untouched. Studies have found that children are more likely to eat their vegetables when offered with a dip, so pack some guacamole or hummus alongside raw veggies and see what happens. Also, consider your preparation method. Is your child more likely to eat grilled or roasted veggies versus raw? Try preparing foods like spaghetti sauce and meatloaf with shredded or diced carrots, onions, peppers and celery mixed in and send leftovers in the lunchbox.
Quick ideas: corn kernels/corn on the cob; raw broccoli florets with hummus/roasted broccoli/steamed broccoli with cheese sauce; baked sweet potato sprinkled with cinnamon/oven-baked sweet potato fries; oven-roasted potato wedges/potato cakes; raw zucchini rounds with ranch dip/zucchini bread.
2. Keep Your Child Hydrated. Staying hydrated throughout the day is critical to maintain concentration and energy levels. If you're worried your child doesn’t drink enough water at school, make sure to include water-packed foods in the lunchbox. You can also start the morning by offering oatmeal or ready-to-eat cereal made with milk and topped with fruit.
Quick ideas: watermelon, strawberries, pasta, salad greens, rice, cucumbers, grapes, bell peppers
3. Think Outside the Sandwich: Sandwiches with lean, low-sodium deli meat are an easy way to boost protein in the lunchbox. But if you need to break out of the sandwich rut, consider some of the following protein-rich foods to keep your child feeling satisfied all afternoon.
Quick ideas: edamame, hummus, hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese, beans, lentils, quinoa, roasted chickpeas, nuts, cottage cheese, tofu cubes, smoothies made with yogurt or silken tofu, and nut or seed butters
4. Pack the Power Trio: Fiber, Protein, and Healthy Fat
Three nutrients—fiber, protein, and healthy fat—have “staying power” to keep your child feeling energized throughout the day and boost his or her daily nutrient quotient. When packing a lunchbox, choose foods that hit these target nutrients.
Quick ideas: whole wheat tortilla spread with nut or seed butter, topped with banana slices and flax seed and rolled up; leftover grilled chicken sandwich with spinach, grilled veggies and hummus; low-sodium turkey pita with tomatoes, cheese, arugula and a smear of fresh avocado; egg salad made with canola mayo or Greek yogurt atop salad greens with whole wheat crackers
5. Make it Fun
Just because you’re packing a nutritious lunch doesn’t mean you can’t offer healthier alternatives to the sweet or salty treats your child craves. Consider making some of the traditional favorites yourself so you can oversee the ingredient list and remember to keep portions in check. You can also pack stickers, notes, and small toys to keep lunch interesting and fun.
Quick ideas: trail mix with whole grain cereal, nuts and chocolate chips; baked potato chips; dark chocolate square; whole grain pretzels; mini whole grain muffin; yogurt-covered raisins
Image of turkey rolls in hummus, kiwi, cheese, and milk via Holley Grainger.