8 Healthy Packed Lunches Your Kid Will Actually Finish
From upgraded peanut butter sandwiches to pizza kebabs, these ready-to-pack meals are nutritious and delicious.
The healthy school lunch you pack isn't doing much good if your kid doesn't eat it. And let's face it: The same old turkey sandwich day in and day out does get boring. Nutrition is key, but food should fun, too!
"Just like adults, kids eat with their eyes first, so you want to have a lunch that has a lot of colors in it," says Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RD, of Kids Eat in Color. "What I do with my own kids is occasionally I'll throw in something fun like a carrot cut into a star shape. These things aren't essential to kids eating healthfully, but in a culture where there's a ton of fast food and highly processed foods that kids might be more attracted to, it really goes a long way in helping them be happy with a colorful, low processed lunch."
A healthy lunch "has balance of nutrients in it," says Anderson, a mother of two boys ages 4 and 6. "So it has carbohydrates, protein and fat... The protein and fat are going to keep them full and fueled, and the complex carbohydrates are going to give them energy."
Here are eight nutritious, kid-friendly lunches that fit the bill.
Upgraded Peanut Butter Sandwich
The classic PB&J is a lunchtime staple, but eating the same sandwich every day can get old. That's why Mind Over Munch founder Alyssia Sheikh encourages parents to keep it interesting with new fruity fillings.
"An easy way to make it more nutritious is to use straight-up fruit instead of jam," she says. "In the video [below], I mashed up a banana and I'm using that as the 'jam' with the peanut butter. But I've also done sliced strawberries or mashed blueberries...Really, I would say, what's your kid's favorite fruit? Mash it up or put in small bites [in the sandwich]. It's another opportunity to kick it up a notch."
Sheikh has also put coconut flakes, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds in peanut butter sandwiches. "That's going to add some crunch, but also some nutrients," she explains. "You could [also] use almond butter, cashew butter, or sunflower seed butter. That's going to give you more nutrients, and it's going to give you a little more variety than just peanut butter again and again."
Any version of a peanut butter sandwich can be part of a balanced lunch. In the Mind Over Munch video above, Sheikh packed hers with sweet potato chips, savory ants on a log, a boiled egg, strawberry skewers, and chocolate fruit dip.
Pro-tip: A peanut butter (or nut butter substitute) sandwich makes a great lunch "base" on those days when you're really in a rush. "My kids eat it all the time," says Anderson, who has a free Picky Eater Guide on the website for Kids Eat in Color. "If you serve a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with an applesauce pouch (like Mott's Clear Applesauce Pouches with no sugar added) and few cucumber slices or some carrots on the side, boom! You have a super easy lunch that's getting a couple of different colors in."
Pizza (With a Twist)
Pizza can be part of a balanced, nutritious lunch, but a cold, rubbery slice of pepperoni isn't always all that exciting. Little Lunch Love founder Jenny Kalynuik likes to keep it interesting, so she makes pizza kebabs for her kids' lunches.
The creative mother of two made her popular pizza skewers "by threading slices of pepperoni, mozzarella, and bread on a bamboo skewer," she says. "I've served tomato sauce on the side for dipping, a baked good, and lots of fresh veggies and fruit."
You can also make a kid-friendly mini pizza using an English muffin. Klara Knezevic, RD, LD, CLT, says this can be a great opportunity "to get some good whole grains in your child's diet."
"Then you have the sauce and cheese, and you can have veggies and other toppings," says Knezevic, who works with Rebecca Bitzer and Associates. "I'd also send some grapes or maybe carrots and a dip. Add a fruit, like strawberries, and maybe a snack, like a granola bar."
Pinwheel Chicken Wraps
With this particular wrap, Anderson put some chicken and organic cream cheese in a whole grain tortilla. "You can really put in whatever your kid likes," she says. "And then just roll it up." The protein and healthy fats will keep your little one full, and the complex carbohydrates will give them energy.
Anderson's packed wrap lunch included "a whole bunch of different colors of fruits and vegetables," she says. She opted for strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, bell peppers, and broccoli, but really any colorful combo of fruits and veggies is going to be a win nutritionally.
"I experiment a lot [with fruits and veggies]," says Anderson. "I cut them into different shapes to see which ones they like most. Having that variety really goes a long way in terms of them eating the fruits and vegetables."
Ranch Veggie Quesadilla
"The beautiful thing about a quesadilla is you can use any vegetables, and they don't necessarily need to be cooked," says Sheikh. "They can be raw, then you throw them in there and melt in cheese, and [it's going to] taste good!"
In the Mind Over Munch video above, Sheikh sautéed diced onion, bell pepper, mushroom, and zucchini. She added some shredded cheese and a flavorful homemade ranch dip. She packed this scrumptious quesadilla in a Bento box with dried apples, BBQ quinoa salad, carrots, and celery (with ranch dip for dressing), and some homemade fruit gummies.
Pasta lunches are a win for kids and parents. Kalynuik of Little Lunch Love likes them "because [they're] easy to prepare," plus "the topping options are endless, so [my kids] never get bored," she says.
In the packed lunch above, Kalynuik made a penne pasta in tomato sauce with mozzarella cheese. "But I'll [also] make cold pasta salads in the summer months and add cooked pasta to both to make noodle soups in the winter months," she says.
She packed this particular penne with baby carrots, fresh strawberries, a side of cheese (cut into the shape of a fun star), and an oatmeal muffin topped with honey and sprinkles.
Anderson of Kids Eat in Color encourages parents to think outside the bread box. Pancakes are a great, non-sandwich option, and kids get a kick out of eating breakfast for lunch.
This mindful mom recommends using a high-protein pancake batter to keep kids fuller, longer. "If you don't get the high-protein kind, you can add in some additional protein," she says. "I added in some hemp hearts and used a higher protein milk."
You can add some peanut butter (or nut-free substitute) and turn those protein pancakes into a sandwich, or you can keep it simple and send some syrup for dipping. Anderson served the protein pancakes pictured above with a variety of fresh fruits and sliced cucumbers. On another day, she packed pancakes with a nectarine, bell peppers, and some cherry tomatoes. "It was basically whatever I could see in the fridge that was really quick," she says.
Fried Egg Sandwich
Kalynuik, whose kids are 3 and 6, likes fried egg sandwiches because they're fast and easy to prepare but also pack some protein. "They're super tasty to eat," she says, "especially on a yummy Focaccia bread or butter croissant!"
The Little Lunch Love creator packs her kids' fried egg sandwiches with a colorful variety of fresh fruits and veggies "because color makes everything fun," she says. "I slice the tops off my kids' oranges to make them easy to peel."
"Don't be afraid to use leftovers from the night before," says Anderson. "Sometimes you can just take leftover dinners, chop them up, add a little sauce, and put them in a wrap. It's not always as quick as a sandwich, but you can kind of experiment and see what your child is willing to eat."
You can also repurpose leftovers into nontraditional tacos. Because as Sheikh says, "Almost anything can be served as a taco or a burrito, and it's bound to be more fun and taste a little better."
"You can send leftover cooked protein, you could send tuna or chicken salad, or even a casserole, and then pack it with some tortillas and some toppings, so some vegetables," she says. "Then let your kid assemble their own makeshift tacos for lunch. It's going to be an experience for them, and it's going to taste better."