Tackling School Lunch
If you’ve been diligently making your child’s lunch for school each day, that would be 9 months now, my guess is you are probably getting tired of it. And perhaps your child is also getting tired of the same old boring lunch. Maybe you’re even noticing that the lunch is coming back home after school, which of course lends you to wonder if they’re just going hungry all day or eating their friends’ food? And just maybe you're actually considering giving in and letting your child get the school lunch just so you don't have to think about it anymore (oh, the horror).
If any of the above rings true, I totally get it! I've been there. It's so easy to just give in but the problem is our school cafeterias in the United States leave a lot to be desired. Granted there are some school districts around the country that are trying to do better and if you're lucky enough to live in one of those districts, then eating a hot lunch at school might actually be a good option. But for the rest of us, it is not the case. And if you believe, as I do, that it is up to us to provide our kids with healthy whole foods, then alas it is up to you to pack healthy lunches for your kids.
Here's the other problem though with packing your own lunch from home. A lot of "lunches" and treats our children would prefer we pack for them are just as unhealthy and perhaps even worse than the school lunch (insert Lunchables here). And let's be honest, there's only so many sandwiches a given person can eat before they can't stand the sight of them anymore. So......where does this leave us? It leaves us with the task to pack healthy yet yummy and fun lunches that our kids will actually eat and we'll feel good to give them.
I know. This may seem impossible. But I assure you it doesn't have to be. Let's dive into the exact strategies I have used with my kids to keep them happily eating their packed lunch.
4 Simple Strategies to Make Lunches You’re Kids Will Love
First, What do they like?
This is exactly where I started with my kids and what I continually come back to and refine as their taste preferences change. On a weekend one day sit down with them and together come up with a list of foods that they like. Break it down by category and try to brainstorm as many different options in each category as possible. If you’re struggling for inspiration, take your kids to the grocery store with you and have them pick out some things they would like; sticking to whole foods as much as possible. Here are some foods that made it to my kids lists.
Proteins: nitrate-free deli meat (turkey, chicken, ham, salami), roast chicken, hamburger, veggie burger, tuna, nut butter (peanut, almond, walnut, etc), hummus, re-fried beans, black beans, cheese, tofu, edamame, hard boiled egg, falafel, etc.
Starches: whole grain bread, whole grain or rice crackers, pasta, pita, tortilla, popcorn, oatmeal, couscous, potato or veggie chips, etc.
Veggies: carrots, tomatoes, bell pepper, cucumber, radish, celery, jicama, seaweed, etc.
Fruits: tangerine, apricot, berries, apple or pear slices, orange slices, banana, pineapple, melon, peach, nectarine, etc.
Snacks (if you also have to pack snacks make sure you brainstorm some ideas for this as well): trail mix, applesauce, fruit/nut bar, veggie chips, seaweed, brownie bites, etc.
Second, Make it Colorful
Besides making their lunch balanced with proteins, starches, and produce you also want to make it as colorful as possible. Not only does this make it more appealing and beautiful to look at but it’s important that kids really do try to eat a rainbow of colors each day. Each color group is associated with a different set of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. So the more colorful their diet, the more nutritious their diet.
Third, Make it Fun
Keep their lunch interesting with different and unexpected combinations of foods, shapes, colors, etc.
- Arrange food into fun shapes and faces. Cookie cutters can really help with this task.
- Use colorful cupcake holders or silicone muffin holders to separate food items.
- Use fun and kid-friendly containers to pack their lunch.
- Add a little love note or drawing in your child’s bag to add a special and fun touch.
Fourth, Have Them Help You
Throughout this entire process your kids should be helping you. From the planning and brainstorming to the actual packing. By working on lunches together you’ll make sure you’re packing foods they like and they will in turn be more inclined to eat what they had a hand in preparing.
Ideally see if you can find about 20 lunches you can rotate through. That means you would only repeat the lunch every 4 weeks. Swapping out seasonal ingredients when they’re available should also help keep the lunches different and interesting. No more boring sandwiches here or returned lunch bags still full of food.
Here are a few great resources to get your creative juices flowing. 100 Days of Real Food also offers two different eBooks with a total of 12 weeks of school lunch meal plans! I believe they become available in the summer as parents are gearing up for the new school year. They also have a lot of great lunch ideas on their blog.
- 100 Days of Real Food: Real Lunches, Real Easy
- The Kitchn: 10 Sandwich Free Lunch Ideas
- EatingWell: Top Healthy Kids Lunch Ideas
Take Home Message
As with everything related to healthy eating, the more we plan ahead the easier it is to stick with our goals. The same is true when planning and packing our children's lunches. Once you have a list of the foods they like and some creative inspiration, then plan their lunches right into your weekly meal plan. That way you'll have the food on hand and can do some prep ahead of time making the actual "packing" of the lunches that much easier. Keep it fun! Keep it colorful! And keep your kids involved. Lunches don't have to be a chore and they certainly don't have to be unhealthy to be eaten.
For the last year, my family and I have been living in France and subsequently experiencing an entirely different approach to school lunch. If you're interested in learning more about how the French approach differs from that of the United States, check out the blog post that I dedicated entirely to that subject.
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