Make Boxed Lunches Interesting and Nutritious for Children


bag-lunch_cA parent who packs lunches for just one kid every day from kindergarten through seventh grade packs more than 1,500 meals. That could mean 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and 1,500 bags of chips. Or, it could mean 1,500 chances for your child to get the nutrients he or she needs and develop tastes for a variety of healthy foods at the same time.


Here are some simple ideas to make bagged or boxed lunches interesting and nutritious, too.

  • Pay attention to your kid's likes and dislikes. Sure, you want your creations to be the envy of the lunch table - but be sure to include your child in the planning process. If you insist on packing things your kids don't like, they'll just trade them or throw them away.
  • Don't assume your child needs a 3-course, sit-down meal. School cafeterias are chaotic, and most kids won't have more than 15 minutes of actual eating time. So make sure the foods you send are easy to eat, in easily opened packages.
  • Go shopping - for ideas. Do your kids clamor for those prepackaged meals in the refrigerated section of your supermarket? That's because they're planned specifically to appeal to kids. Why not see if you can make your own healthier version? We bet you can. Take a look at that combo of soggy, pasty white saltines and processed cheese product. Now think about pairing a handful of sweet red grapes with some crisp, whole grain crackers and small squares of a good low-fat cheese. See how easy it is?
  • Think small. Some kids really may not be able to eat a big sandwich at one sitting. If that's the case with your children, consider the tapas approach: a selection of small bites instead of a large sandwich. Finger food is easier for children to handle and more fun to eat, too. So cut sandwiches into four squares, use cookie cutters to make small shapes, or look for smaller sandwich ingredients like cocktail rye bread, tiny tortillas or petite rolls. Serve baby carrots or small slices of fruits and veggies on the side. Another advantage of this "bar food" idea: smaller quantities allow for more variety. Even the pickiest eaters may happily graze a selection of different small bites.
  • Let drinks do double duty. Small gel packs are good for keeping packed lunches cool, but they're one more thing to tote around. Why not just freeze juice boxes to include with bagged or boxed lunches? Frozen juice boxes will keep other foods cool, and they'll thaw to just the right temperature by lunchtime.
  • Play with your food. Is your child likely to eat the insides of a sandwich and throw away the bread? Then why not skip the bread entirely? Cut meats and cheeses into interesting shapes instead of just slapping them between two slices of bread. (And don't be afraid to try the same fun shapes with fruits and veggies. You can even thread the shapes onto a popsicle stick to make lunchbox shish kebab.)
  • Go global. There's a whole world out there beyond square white bread - lots of other options that can make your sandwiches more interesting. How about tortillas? Or focaccia? Maybe pita bread, lavash or other flatbreads. Raisin or cinnamon bread can be a nice change of pace. You can also explore using bagels, croissants, savory muffins, crackers, mini waffles, or rice cakes.
  • Mix it up. Munching on something crunchy is always fun. And it's even better when you can combine sweet and savory. There are plenty of really easy recipes for homemade snack mixes that include healthy ingredients like dried fruits, unsalted nuts, pretzels, and baked crackers. If you've got time on a weekend or weeknight, have the kids help you mix up a batch.
  • Go skinny-dipping. Bean dips, hummus, salsas, and nut "patés" can all help you shake up the lunchbox routine. Dipping and scooping is fun. Plus, you can really pump up the vitamin content if your child likes to dip raw veggies. Whole grain crackers, pita chips or pretzels can add lots of fiber, too.
  • Stay cool (or hot). An insulated thermos is good for hot foods like soups or stews - and for cold soups or salads too. For best results, rinse out the thermos with very hot water to preheat it before adding hot foods. Rinse with ice water to chill it before adding cold foods.
  • Roll your own. Cereal bars or energy bars can be nutritious, but many are loaded with extra fat and sugar. So shop carefully - or try making your own "energy cookies" with rolled oats, dried fruits, and nuts or nut butters. There are lots of easy recipes for homemade bars that deliver extra flavor, color and nutrition.
  • Respect tradition. Let's face it. Some kids just don't like a lot of change. So if your child really wants the same thing - day after day - go ahead and pack it - as long as the meal is nutritious and you are sure your child eats it. There's nothing wrong with the tried-and-true if it's working for you.

Whether you're a whiz in the kitchen or not, you can make creative school lunches! And don't forget to have fun sometimes.

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