It’s a common parental dilemma: conjuring up easy, nutritious school lunches that your child will actually eat. Ideally, you’d send your children off each day with a wild-caught salmon fillet, a scoop of barley risotto, and a crisp salad; in real life, that wholesome lunch would likely come home each day, well, still whole. To raise your lunch-box success ratio, we’ve gathered grocery-shopping and preparation tips to keep kids satisfied—and well fueled—until the last bell rings.
Shopping for school lunches
During weekly or twice-weekly shopping trips, load your basket with foods that will feed your child’s brain, says Coralee Thompson, MD, coauthor of Healthy Brains, Healthy Children (Barmore, 2009). If your kitchen is stocked with convenient, whole foods, you (and your kids) will be less likely to rely on processed, packaged foods or whatever the school cafeteria is serving that day.
How to use leftovers
Plan dinners and lunches will follow. Heat up leftover soups, stews, or whole-grain pastas (if necessary) and pack them in an insulated stainless-steel container. Top extra baked or sweet potatoes with favorite veggies and grated cheese. Cut leftover cooked chicken, red meat, or fish, into kid-friendly cubes; pack them solo or use them in sandwiches and wraps, suggests Thompson. Or choose lean and lower-sodium lunchmeats.
Make fresh foods once or twice a week
Some fruits and veggies become brown or slimy if you cut them too far in advance, but others—grapes, cherry tomatoes, carrots, jicama slices—can be washed and bagged days ahead. Other tried-and-true prep- and package-ahead menu items: hard-boiled eggs; homemade trail mixes (nuts, seeds, dried fruits, unsweetened coconut flakes); natural applesauce mixed with cinnamon, walnuts, and raisins; plain yogurt blended with honey, berries, and nuts; and dips such as hummus, black bean dip, salsa, and yogurt.
Make cooking fun!
Slice foods into easy-to-handle strips or cubes (lightly brush apples and pears with lemon juice to prevent browning) and package them with tasty dips. Or combine multicolored fruits or veggies in one reusable container for eye appeal. Wrap foods in tortillas, and cut sandwiches into triangles. For younger kids, send a note declaring certain days to be “sponsored by” a particular letter (“C” could be carrots, clementines, chicken, and cashews) or color (orange pepper strips, cantaloupe, cheddar cheese cubes, a few bites of salmon). For occasional treats, try a few semi-sweet chocolate chips or a baggie of air-popped popcorn drizzled with olive oil and sea salt (prepared in advance).
Try unfamiliar ingredients weekly
If your kids are picky, you’ll have to be persistent. Have them try a new healthy food at home first, says Karen Spencer Dees, PhD, a professor of holistic nutrition at Clayton College of Natural Health in Framingham, Massachusetts (she uses this strategy with her four young children). If they don’t like it, reintroduce it in a week or two. After repeated exposure to a nutritious food choice, kids will often start to choose it on their own.
Foods should be nutritious
Ground flaxseed, for example, can be added imperceptibly to yogurt, applesauce, or dips. Finely chop walnuts and hide them in a trail mix, or tuck a few cooked greens into a wrap.
Get your kids involved
Take your child shopping and let her choose new, whole foods to try. Then set up a food-tasting buffet and have her record favorites on a chart for Mom’s or Dad’s reference.
Whatever your approach, don’t give up, Thompson says. “Your child’s brain is such a magnificent organ. But in order for it to be at its best, you have to feed it well.”
Lunch-box building blocks
One handful of vegetables. They’re crammed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients—and won’t spike blood sugar levels.
One piece of fruit. Fruits offer many natural nutrients, and they’re a healthy source of quick energy.
2–4 ounces of protein, to help sustain a child’s energy levels and feed the mind. “The chemicals that make the brain work are essentially protein, so kids need a healthy protein for it to function properly,” says Coralee Thompson, MD. Good options include hard-boiled eggs; poultry; soy (edamame and tofu); the occasional lean red meat; dairy products such as cheese and plain yogurt; beans; and nuts and seeds (especially pistachios, almonds, walnuts, plain roasted peanuts, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds).
Healthy fats, such as a handful of walnuts, ground flaxseed mixed into yogurt or in whole-grain crackers, salmon, or a guacamole dip. Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and some nuts and seeds, boost cognitive function. Two recent studies indicate positive effects of DHA supplements on attention span in healthy boys ages 8–10, and of fish consumption on test performance for male adolescents.
- Whole-grain products such as brown rice, 100 percent multigrain bread or pasta, and whole-grain tortillas. These complex carbohydrates provide fiber to help sustain energy, says Karen Spencer Dees, PhD.
Kid-friendly foods to have on hand
Veggies: baby carrots, bell pepper slices (red, orange, yellow), sugar snap peas, jicama, broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, black olives (water-cured)
Fruits: strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, apples, plums, kiwifruit, oranges, grapes, cherry tomatoes, avocados, melons, dried fruits
Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews
Nut butters: almond, walnut, cashew, peanut
Beans: black, red, kidney, pinto, garbanzo
Proteins: eggs, chicken or turkey breasts, wild-caught salmon, lean red meats, soy
Dairy: plain yogurt, cottage cheese, unprocessed cheese
Whole-grain products: bread, tortillas, pitas, crackers
- Applesauce (no sugar added) Unsweetened coconut flakes Popcorn Honey (raw, unfiltered) Stainless-steel insulated container Stainless-steel water bottle Reusable cold pack
A week of lunches
Small orange, peeled and sectioned
Wrap: ½ whole-wheat tortilla, thin strips of leftover chicken, red bell pepper strips, Neufchatel cheese or tahini spread
Handful of walnuts and raisins
Three strawberries, halved
Handful of baby carrots
Plain yogurt, premixed with ground flaxseed and honey
Four whole-grain crackers
Apple slices with nut butter dip (sweetened with a touch of honey)
Five cherry tomatoes
Baggie of sugar snap peas and black olives
Insulated container of leftover chicken-noodle soup
Handful of red grapes
Four thick cucumber slices
Handful of baked corn chips with black bean dip
Handful of sunflower seeds
Handful of sunflower seeds
Ten semi-sweet chocolate chips
* Every day: Include a stainless-steel water bottle filled with water (add a squeeze of lemon, lime, or orange juice if your kids want more flavor).