Let's face it: Your kid probably has two or three school-day favorites that you pack over and over again (snore!). To shake things up, we've supplied you with 25 healthy and easy twists on popular noontime fare plus sides and snacks that you might have never considered. Follow our plan for an easy A.
Pump Up PB&J
Peanut butter packs protein, healthy fat, and vitamin E. You just need to vary the jelly and white bread, says Katie Morford, R.D., author of Best Lunch Box Ever. If your child has a tree-nut or peanut allergy or his school is peanut-free, make these lunches with sunflower seed, pumpkin seed, or soynut butter.
Nutty Dip & Veggies
In a blender, mix 1/2 cup peanut butter, 6 Tbs. apple cider, and 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon. Stir if using natural PB. Pack 2 to 3 Tbs. dip with veggie slices for lunch; store remainder in the fridge for up to 4 days. (216 calories, 16g fat)
Spread 1 Tbs. peanut butter and 1/2 Tbs. apple butter on a slice of whole-wheat cinnamon-raisin bread. Sprinkle on ground cinnamon. Slice in half; sandwich together. (251 calories, 9g fat)
Spread 2 Tbs. peanut butter on a toasted whole-grain waffle. Smash 1/4 cup fresh raspberries with a fork; spread over peanut butter. Top with another toasted waffle and cut into quarters. (344 calories, 19g fat)
Spread 1 Tbs. peanut butter on half a slice of whole-grain bread. Spread the other half with 1/2 Tbs. Nutella. Top one half with banana slices; sandwich together. (226 calories, 12g fat)
Cut a 7 1/2"x 10" whole-wheat lavash or flat bread in half crosswise. Spread on 2 Tbs. peanut butter, top with 1/4 cup finely chopped apple or pear and 1 tsp. honey. Roll; cut into 4 pieces. (277 calories, 17g fat)
Shape Up Cheese & Crackers
The problem with some prepackaged versions: They have a lot of saturated fat and some use artificial colors. Try these healthier twists instead.
Mash 2 Tbs. fresh blueberries; stir in 1/4 cup light whipped cream cheese. Serve with 8 Newman's Own Organics Alphabet Cookies. (226 calories, 12g fat)
Use a 1 3/4" flower-shaped cutter to cut 6 cheese flowers from slices of reduced-fat cheddar. Serve with 6 Pepperidge Farm butterfly crackers. (218 calories, 11g fat)
In a blender, combine 4 oz. light cream cheese and 1/4 cup chopped roasted red sweet peppers until nearly smooth. Transfer to a container and stir in 2 tsp. grated Parmesan and 1/4 tsp. dried basil. Serve one third with 10 wheat-cracker sticks, like Wheat Thins Stix. Store remainder for up to 1 week. (165 calories, 11g fat)
Spread 2 Wasa crackers with a wedge of The Laughing Cow Light Garlic & Herb cheese. Wrap in plastic to prevent drying out. (135 calories, 4g fat)
Spread 5 woven-wheat crackers (like Back to Nature Harvest Whole Wheat) with 4 tsp. part-skim ricotta cheese. Add 1 or 2 plum slices to each and top with another cracker. (222 calories, 8g fat)
Soup-er Charge the Thermos
Brown 1/2 lb. ground turkey breast in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. ground cumin. Stir in 2 medium tomatoes, chopped, and 8 oz. no-salt-added tomato sauce. Cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Makes 2 servings; refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days. (192 calories, 1g fat)
In a blender, combine 1 1/2 cups hulled strawberries, 1/2 cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt, 1 Tbs. honey, 2 Tbs. low-fat buttermilk or milk, and 1 Tbs. lime juice. Cover and blend until smooth. Save half in the fridge for another day. If desired, pack a few sliced strawberries separately to add to top of soup. (108 calories, 0 fat)
Here's your chance to slip in whole-grain pasta -- once everything gets covered in broth, kids won't even notice a color difference from their usual noodles. Click the link at the bottom for the recipe. (212 calories, 7g fat)
Creamy Butternut Squash
Adding a pear is the secret to a sweet soup that even picky eaters will request. Click the link at the bottom for the recipe. (164 calories, 6g fat)
Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a saucepan on medium. Add 3 Tbs. chopped onion and 2 cloves garlic, minced. Sauté for 5 minutes or until onions are tender. Add 2 medium tomatoes, chopped, 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Stir in 3 cups no-salt-added chicken broth. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Blend with a quarter of a whole-wheat pita round until smooth. Return to saucepan; stir in 1 1/2 cups cooked alphabet pasta and heat through. Makes 5 servings; refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days. (127 calories, 4g fat)
Bulk Up Deli Sandwiches
Keep your child's favorite meat (just consider buying a low-sodium version), but change the bread and condiments, suggests Jill Castle, R.D., coauthor of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School.
Roast Beef Roll-Up
Spread a lettuce leaf with 1 tsp. hoisin sauce, top with a slice of roast beef and 1 Tbs. shredded carrots. Roll up; secure with a toothpick. (44 calories, 1g fat)
Mix 1/4 cup light cream cheese, 2 Tbs. canned pumpkin, and 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon. Spread 1 Tbs. on bottom of a small roll; store extra in fridge for up to 3 days. Top with 1 Tbs. dried cranberries, butter lettuce, and low-sodium turkey breast. (190 calories, 6g fat)
Ham & Pear
Mix 1/4 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt, 1 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh dill, and a bit of salt. Spread 1 Tbs. on a slice of whole-wheat bread; store extra in fridge for up to 3 days. Top with thin slices of low-sodium ham and thin pear slices. Cover with a slice of white bread. Cut in half; flip one half for a "zebra" effect. (182 calories, 2g fat)
Fill half of a whole-grain pita pocket with 1/4 cup baby spinach leaves, 6 strawberry slices, 2 oz. leftover shredded rotisserie chicken, and 1 tsp. honey mustard. (152 calories, 3g fat)
Layer 2 thin slices salami, 1 or 2 slices tomato, and 1 slice part-skim mozzarella cheese on the bottom half of a toasted whole-grain English muffin. Add muffin top. (170 calories, 6g fat)
Noodle With Pasta
There's nothing wrong with packing leftover pasta and tomato sauce in a thermos, says Melissa Barlow, author of Noodlemania! 50 Playful Pasta Recipes, but it's not as exciting as these easy recipes!
In a saucepan, whisk 1/2 cup no-salt-added chicken broth, 2 Tbs. peanut butter, and 1 Tbs. reduced-sodium soy sauce. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Boil gently, uncovered, for 2 minutes or until thickened, stirring frequently. Cook a 3-oz. pkg. ramen noodles (discard seasoning pack) and stir in 2 Tbs. each sweet red-pepper strips and halved sugar snap peas. Drain noodles; add to sauce. Split between two thermoses or save half. (302 calories, 15g fat)
Combine 1 1/2 cups cooked leftover spaghetti squash with 3 Tbs. marinara sauce in a thermos. Pack 2 Tbs. shredded Parmesan cheese separately for your child to sprinkle on top. (131 calories, 4g fat)
Cook 1/2 cup mini cheese ravioli according to pkg. directions, adding 2 Tbs. chopped carrot to the boiling water. A minute before it's done, add 2 Tbs. fresh or frozen corn kernels. Drain and toss with 1 tsp. olive oil. Serve warm in a thermos or chill. (273 calories, 8g fat)
Toss 3/4 cup cooked whole-grain angel-hair pasta with 2 tsp. olive oil and 1 tsp. fresh basil slivers. Use a fork to twist the center of the pasta mixture until it starts to form a mound. Transfer to a round storage container. Spread apart in the center. Add a few halved cherry or grape tomatoes around the edge and tiny fresh mozzarella balls in the center. (229 calories, 13g fat)
Bow-Tie Pasta Salad
Combine 2 Tbs. plain Greek yogurt, 1 tsp. milk, 1/2 tsp. lemon juice, 1/8 tsp. dried dill, salt, and pepper. Stir into 3/4 cup cooked pasta; 1/4 cup frozen peas, thawed; 1/4 cup chopped celery; and 1/2 oz. reduced-fat cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes. (208 calories, 6g fat)