Although you’ll see these lunch ideas don’t look exceptionally fancy, I think the point is this: you don’t have to spend a ton of time or money giving your children healthy lunch choices. But you do have to spend some. After the pizza debacle (“a slice of pizza still counts as a vegetable”) bubbled up when congress blocked proposals for changes in school lunches, I was reminded we still have to have a significant responsibility to watch over our children’s lunches. Don’t leave lunch in someone else’s hands unless you’re reviewing the menu. At our sons’ preschool we sometimes feel they do a better job than we do (!) so this is not a post to trash school lunch programs. Some schools really are doing an exceptional job. Is yours?
Trouble is, sometimes I look at example lunch ideas for parents and I feel overwhelmed.
They look so beautiful and ornate, I know it wouldn’t happen in our home. So think basic to start, and as you get in the routine of making lunch for and with your child, expand what you make. Check in with your child about their likes and dislikes, talk to them about not trading food (good luck), and do your best to keep things cool (and/or warm) when possible with a thermos. Proper temperature (as any foodie knows) can be a game changer. That one thermos you buy today may save you many dollars later on.
Consider doing a lunch “make-over” with your child. Even small changes, like substituting trail mix for cookies (more fiber and protein) or milk for a juice box, can go a long way. Every single day makes an impact.
Here’s 20 recipes that felt do-able to me. And here’s a site with “lunch time opportunities.”
And try this recipe that a nutritionist shared with me…
Brown-bag burrito recipe
- 1 (15 ounce) can black beans
- 1 cup salsa
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 8 (10-inch) flour tortillas
- 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
- Rinse beans in cold water, drain well.
- Combine beans, salsa, cumin and chili powder in large pan. Cook over medium-high heat for about ten minutes, mashing beans slightly with back of wooden spoon. Stir occasionally, adding a little water if mixture looks too dry.
- Spoon bean mixture into tortillas. Top with cheese. Fold each tortilla into an envelope shape, ensuring both ends are tucked in. Eat warm or wrap in plastic to take for lunch.
I don’t make school lunch yet. So tell me what I’m missing and your secret tips. And yes, that was a misspeak; apples belong in the fruit category! 🙂
I’m glad to see this, and am going to try some of these recipes. My biggest challenge in packing lunch for my (four-year-old) son is that his likes are very narrow. He was a great eater as a baby and smaller kid, but not now. He started 4K this year, and at first I was sending all these really neat, varied lunches, but he was eating nothing. (Sharing food is not something he’ll do, even with us. LOL) I asked him what he wanted, and he said he was only going to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so that’s what I send, and he eats it every day. I vary (to some degree) the side items, and generally he’ll eat what I send–usually either yogurt or applesauce, some kind of fruit (grapes are most popular), something crunchy (pretzels etc), and a reat like fig bars. He doesn’t eat anything that’s mixed, other than PB&J, so no soups/tortillas/etc. For dinner I make sure to serve something healthy that he’ll eat. At this point I try to remind myself that it makes more sense to send something he will actually eat, and use dinner and snacks at home to fill in the gaps as best I can until he’s willing to try more.
School lunches in our house are much easier and require less work than the very fine example you posted. For a just-turned-7-year-old, we are very conscious of the limited time our little social-talker has to eat during the 15 minute lunch period. Usually he only manages to eat his sandwich and drink a carton of milk (we’ve had trouble finding a beverage container that doesn’t leak, but still able to be opened by him).
We also have to be cognizant of the types of containers/packaging he can/cannot open on his own. We do a lot of PB&J and turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread with carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, or a fruit like grapes, etc. We like the reusable containers like these: https://www.onestepahead.com/catalog/product.jsp?productId=537519&cm_ven=RKG_Froogle&cm_cat=NA&cm_pla=NA&cm_ite=NA&orderType=6&utm_source=RKG_GoogleProducts&utm_medium=datafeed&utm_campaign=product&utm_term=GoogleShopping&zmam=15782718&zmas=1&zmac=1&zmap=21303BLUE
I’m sure as our kids get older we’ll need to be more creative, but you are correct in your opening statement — healthy lunches do not need to be uber complicated or costly, or time-consuming to pack.
I should have also added that our school lunches are just “okay” so that is why we prefer (and our son prefers) to eat a packed lunch. My idea of a healthy school lunch program is like those created/promoted by Chef Ann Cooper:
It will be a great day when all schools can afford to offer lunches like those!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Thanks, Kathy. I didn’t know about Chef Ann Cooper and her program. Love the lunchbox.org site.
Which made me think. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a simple blog to follow that provided shopping lists and recipes, nutritional info and food allergy substitutions, every day for 5 days of healthy lunches for kids? What if it ran the entire academic year. Does that exist? If not, why not? And can we get that started? Can you imagine how great it would be? Clearly I’m not the first to think of this. Does it exist??
I would dutifully follow it. Please point me in the right direction if it does.
Laura T. says
I’ve been fairly impressed with Seattle Public Schools nutrition focus (see below) and our elementary has started a school garden as well. We donate much of the food we grow and can’t eat to local food banks to boot!
We are extremely lucky to have Daniel Bagley Elementary just around the corner. We have a great principal, committed teachers, good community of parents, active PTA (100% membership), art & music programs, inclusion programs, Montessori or Contemporary learning options AND we have an amazing PE teacher that teaches to healthy eating and exercise. Way to go Daniel Bagley and Seattle Public Schools!
2010-2011 and ongoing areas of focus for our Nutrition Services team include:
• Enhancing our relationships with Local Farmers and sourcing local fruits and vegetables.
• Developing additional fresh (from scratch) “student approved” recipes.
• Ensuring our breakfast program supports academic success through fresh, fast and nutritious choices for students attractively presented.
• Linking School Gardens to the school cafeteria and connecting experimental learning with the nutritious foods we offer for lunch.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
First off, how does a school get 100% PTA involvement. Does that just mean that everyone signs up? As I’m on the brink of Kindergarten, I’m just learning the ropes there. How did that happen? It seems an incredible fortune.
Second, thanks for posting the year focus on nutrition services and the goals they published. I love lofty goals and more, the focus to achieve them. Do you feel they are meeting those 4 goals? Can you give us an example??
Paul Scanlon says
My son loves sushi. We figured out how to do roll your own for his lunches. A pack of seaweed sheets, smoked salmon, cucumber and edamame and rice. Then he rolls them at school. His friends are impressed.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
I freaking LOVE this.
You may transform the entire lunch room. Oh, I hope you do…
When my daughter entered kindergarten, I had a simple formula for her lunch. It had to contain at least one protein, one vegetable, one fruit and it could have a sweet 3 days per week. I felt it was important to have the food be as fresh as possible, but she really wanted to be involved in choosing her food which created a lot of tension in the AM when we were on a tight timeline. So, we created flash cards with all of the choices we could think of – I cut up index cards, she drew the pictures. That way each night she could look at the cards and pick one from each category and I could get started before she got up in the morning. Now that we are in 1st grade, we have dropped the cards, but we still follow the same formula and it works well.
As far as foods, we keep it really simple. Here are some examples:
Proteins – small toasted sandwiches, salami and cheese rolls, leftovers (mac and cheese, fried rice, etc) in a thermos, quesadillas, chicken nuggets, hot dogs or sausages. A lot of this stuff gets cold over the day but she doesn’t mind.
Veggies – frozen corn and peas (they thaw by lunch), steamed broccoli or carrots, snap peas, edamame, or nori (her favorite). I bought myself a small microwave steamer to make it easy to make fresh veggies in the AM.
Fruits and desserts are pretty self-explanatory.
I also echo the previous comment about easy to open containers. Kids don’t have much time for lunch, don’t get much help in the lunchroom, and are often shy about asking for help especially in kindergarten. There are some great inexpensive containers out there. I particularly like the small stainless steel containers from Daiso, only $1-1.50 per piece and perfect for little hands.
Michelle Ireton says
I am very lucky to have a preschool that supplies better meals than I could. And I am also gearing up to provide lunches for kindergarten next year. Lunchbox Leverage, https://www.lunchboxleverage.com/, looks very interesting but I haven’t had an opportunity to try them yet. They look like a great alternative to packing a lunch.
I am still wonder about the 50th percentile cut-off: “children with a BMI above the 50th percentile are prone to be overweight by adolescence.”
The 50th percentile cut-off is way low compared to the CDC standard. Please comment on this. Thank you very much.
“Children with early-onset obesity in childhood including those with a BMI above the 85th percentile between the ages of 24 and 54 months have a 5-fold greater likelihood of being overweight at age 12. In addition, children with a BMI above the 50th percentile are prone to be overweight by adolescence.  Children who are already obese at age 8 years will tend to have more severe obesity, as well as increased morbidity as an adult
Please comment on this . Thanks
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Hong, my apologies for the delay. Will do a bit of reading/research and get back to you. Thanks for bringing it up again!
BARNES & NOBLE | Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by …www.barnesandnoble.com/w/…we-get-fat-gary-taubes/1021632930Cached
40% off at http://www.bn.com
Dear Doctor, Please comment on the science of this. Thanks