How to Make Healthy School Lunches Your Kids Will Love
I have come up with a system that almost is foolproof for us: healthy breakfasts and packed lunches that are quick, easy and protest-free. Isn’t the latter the key?
PHOTO BY JAYDA SIGGERS
This is the time of year that fills me with dread. Not only because my favorite season is ending — long days, fun times with the family, vacations — but also because I need to make quick breakfasts and pack lunches five days a week for the next nine months.
One year, I made the mistake of going on Pinterest and seeing all of the super-mom bento boxes with teddy-bear cheese slices and fruit cut into stars. I wept.
But then I remember: I’ve got this. After years of struggling with uneaten lunches and fears of “Did my kids eat enough breakfast?” I have come up with a system that almost is foolproof for us: healthy breakfasts and packed lunches that are quick, easy and protest-free. Isn’t the latter the key?
As you can imagine, I am very particular about making sure the kids get a balanced breakfast that will give them nutrition and enough energy to last them through lunch.
Why is this so important? As my friend and favorite nutritionist Jayda Siggers says, “The lunch you pack your child provides the energy and nutrients he [or she] requires to learn and play at school. Without adequate nutrition, he [or she] may feel tired and struggle to concentrate. That puts a lot of pressure on us, the parents, who pack the lunch.”
For lunch, my challenge is to give them a balanced and healthy meal that’s something they can eat fairly quickly (I am extremely disappointed at the short lunch periods in the schools — forcing kids to rush through their meals!) and something that they like enough so that they won’t feel deprived when they see the “treats”—pizzas, hamburgers, hotdogs and chicken nuggets — served at school lunches.
Jayda and I traded tips a while back. Here are some of the best ones we’ve come up with to help you along this school year.
So here it is: Operation School Lunch.
PHOTO COURTESY PLANETBOX'S FACEBOOK PAGE
Step 1: Get a good lunch box.
Here is a great site that Jayda pointed me to that will give you the lay of the land with all of the reusable lunch boxes and containers. Jayda uses the GoGreen lunch box for her kids, and for my kids who prefer hot lunches, I use a regular Thermos container and a Klean Kanteen wide-mouth water bottle. On the days I pack sandwiches, I use a small PlanetBox, a stainless steel bento-style container like Jayda’s GoGreen. All of these fit in the dishwasher and are very easy to clean.
Step 2: Plan a menu.
This is the KEY.
I don’t try to be very creative in this department, and there is no such thing as Rachael Ray’s “365 No Repeats” in this department for me.
During the school year, breakfasts and lunches are predictable and repetitive. This is the key to healthy breakfasts and lunches while keeping your sanity.
At the start of every school year, I map out 10 breakfasts and lunches (a two-week rotation) with the kids. This is key for them. It’s like a contract. My kids have slightly differing preferences. However, I do NOT want to make two different breakfasts and lunches every day to appease them, nor do I want to always revert to the least common denominator of breakfast cereal.
For breakfast, it always is important to me for the kids to have a fruit and/or vegetable (I add greens to smoothies, or if we make quick grits, I add chopped greens as well), a really good source of protein and fat (such as eggs, nuts and nut butter) and a whole grain. I am adamant on LOW SUGAR breakfasts that, coupled with low protein and fat, will cause kids’ energy to rush and then crash mid-morning.
For lunch, we include healthier versions of what typically is on school lunch menus such as the occasional organic, preservative-free chicken fingers.
So we sit down and we come up with a list that we all agree on. Jayda does the same thing. As she says, “Allow them to choose their favorite foods, so you can be assured that they will eat their lunch.”
Here are some things to remember (and some of out options for lunch components).
1. Main Course = Protein + Whole Grain
Jayda says, “This is the largest compartment and will include a protein source and a whole grain. Protein is required by the body for the growth, maintenance and repair of all cells. Protein is vital for metabolism, digestion and transportation of nutrients and oxygen in the blood. It is also necessary for the production of antibodies, which fight against infection and illness.
Whole grains are rich in fiber, B vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that help children build muscles, bones and are important for cognitive function. Fiber and complex carbohydrates in whole grains help regulate satiety and blood glucose levels throughout the day.”
Some easy main-course options:
- Nut- or seed-butter and jam sandwiches on whole-grain bread
- Hummus and whole-grain crackers
- Bean salad
- Tuna salad on whole-grain bread or crackers
- Quesadillas, burritos or paninis
For hot lunch options, I include:
- Whole-grain pasta with pesto or marinara sauce and veggies
- Rice and beans with veggies
- Chicken fingers and a side of either crackers or quinoa
- Fried rice with brown rice, a protein source and veggies
- Vegetable soup
- Leftovers from dinner
This is essential to me. I aim to give my kids vegetables two to three times a day.
“Vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, fiber and other phytonutrients that are imperative to good health. School-aged children should eat 3-5 servings (1/2 cup is considered a serving size) of vegetables a day. When choosing vegetables, remember to incorporate vegetables of all colors and aim for one orange and one dark leafy green vegetable every day,” says Jayda.
I always include greens in hot lunches — my kids are used to seeing chopped-up greens in pasta sauces, fried rice, soups. Basically anything I need to add a vegetable to.
For cold lunches, I add carrot, cucumber and celery sticks on the side. Other options are sliced sweet peppers, roasted seaweed and other veggies your child likes. If they only like one, then go with that.
My kids are not the best salad eaters, but if your child does like salad, add a side of a simple spinach salad.
I very rarely pack a sweet treat at lunch. I know, poor kids, right? Sweets are an occasional food for us, not an everyday food. Sugar also causes spikes and crashes in energy, and those last few hours after lunch at school can be the most challenging for kids and teachers.
Instead, I always pack a fruit.
“Fruits are packed full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytonutrients that are essential to health. Fruits are also an excellent source of soluble fiber. School-aged children should eat two to three servings of fruit per day,” according to Jayda.
Our go-tos are apples, oranges, grapes and pears. Other options can be bananas, sliced peaches, kiwi, pineapple and mangoes.
Again, focus on what your kids already like. School lunch is not the time to have them try new food on their own.
I do not pack juice or soda. I pack water. Hydration is key.
As Jayda says, the bottom line is to pack whole foods that offer a variety of macro and micro nutrients to provide your child with the physical and mental energy he or she requires for a day of playing and learning.
Step 3. Rotate your options every week
Every weekend before I do my grocery shopping, I do a new breakfast and lunch rotation. I write all of the options we agree on in sticky notes and post on a board in the kitchen, and I just mix and match.
This makes breakfast and lunch predictable for me and the kids, making it easy for me to grocery shop and prep. This also minimized all of the protests and ensures lunches that are consumed, not left in their containers uneaten.
Here’s to a healthy school year!