Healthy Lunchbox Ideas: What to Pack, What to Avoid

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Healthy Lunchbox Ideas: What to Pack, What to Avoid

Healthy packing doesn’t always mean healthy eating. Sure, it looks simple and easy, but how do we get our children to actually eat the lunch we pack? In schools, “Children may have as little as twenty minutes to make it to the cafeteria, find their seats, eat, and clean up after themselves, so ease is the name of the game,” says Hillary Wright, MEd, RD, of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. So healthy, quick, and easy-to-eat food is the answer.

The best way to encourage our children to eat healthy is to make them part of the shopping and choosing experience. Let your child make choices about soup, bread, sandwich spreads and fillings, fruits, and vegetables. Most of us pack too much food in our child’s lunchbox and children tend to eat the “sweet stuff” first. Although it’s often more expensive, many individual serving foods like pretzel sticks, applesauce, cheese sticks or cubes, vegetable dips, and yogurt are healthy, easy to pack, and attractive to children.

Try making gradual changes towards a healthier lunch. You can pack the usual sandwich and add vegetables and dip instead of chips, or put in half of the child’s usual sandwich and add half of something new. Check out these lunch combinations:

Lunch Ideas
When making food choices for your child, or guiding him to make his own healthy choices, be aware of food allergies. Many child care centers and schools are peanut-free, so be sure to keep that in mind. Speak to your pediatrician before serving anything new like peanut butter or strawberries, especially for children under a year. Here are some ideas:

  • Mini bagels with pizza sauce and cheese, melon pieces
  • Mild salsa and chips, cheese sticks, cut grapes
  • Bran muffins, small yogurt, strawberries
  • Soup in a thermos, cantaloupe pieces
  • Tortilla wrapped around cheese sticks, cucumber sticks and dip
  • Hummus on pita bread with sprouts, carrot sticks, blueberries
  • Cheese and apple slices on cinnamon raisin bread, yogurt
  • Turkey cubes, crackers and cheese, apple slices
  • Mini-rice cakes with cream cheese, broccoli, cheese chunks
  • Peanut butter on banana bread or pita, yogurt, peaches  
  • Soup in a thermos, crackers and cheese, box of raisins
  • Cheese cubes, applesauce
  • Cream cheese bagel, celery and carrot sticks and dip, orange wedges, plums

Most of us have a bit of a sweet tooth or crave a salty taste. So do our children. Here are some healthy snacking alternatives:

  • Baked potato chips
  • Homemade toasted pita bread chips
  • Pretzels
  • Trail mix or raisins
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Nuts or soy nuts
  • A smattering of chocolate chips
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Graham crackers
  • Fig bars

Getting Organized
Learning menu alternatives is helpful, but actually getting the food packed and out-the-door can be the real challenge for busy parents. Shop for the week. Invest some time cutting all the fruit and vegetables for the week. Refrigerate in individual serving bags. Avoid pre-cutting apples, pears, and bananas that turn brown easily. Velcro eating utensils to the inside of the box so they don’t get thrown out with the trash.

Making lunch the night before really is helpful. Try preparing your child’s lunch after dinner when the kitchen is already a mess. Put the whole lunchbox in the refrigerator. In the morning, grab and go! School-age children can make their own lunches. Remember to do a quick lunch check, just to make sure they put food in there.

Lunchbox Extras and Kid Connections
School-age children don’t always have a chance to wash their hands before lunch, so throw in a wipe. All children, except infants, need a napkin, and who doesn’t enjoy colorful, party napkins? Use your leftover birthday or holiday napkins as a lunchbox treat.

Make a “kid connection” with your child by adding a lunchbox note for your child or a picture for your pre-reader. Pre-readers enjoy a letter, shape, or color of the day drawn on an index card. You can also cut out magazine pictures. A photo taped inside the lunchbox also can bring a smile to your child’s face, especially for your preschooler or kindergartener. Remember to drop in a photo your child can “put his fingerprints all over.” For readers, print messages for the month on your computer, cut into small notes and add a handwritten, “Love, Mom/Dad.” Lunchbox notes can include words of encouragement, “I know you’ll do great on your spelling test,” or reminders, “Pick you up for karate after-school,” or simple love notes, “You’re a great kid!”

For more ideas about healthy lunches that won’t get traded away, just ask the experts to help you—your children! We may be pleasantly surprised.

Click here for additional resources on packing healthy (and fun!) lunches.

Originally published on BrightHorizons