The kids are back in school! Every new school year starts with excitement and good intentions for being organized with making school lunches. But after a couple of weeks of dealing with the flurry and activity of getting ready in the morning, it’s easy for good habits to slip. When we’re running late, it’s tempting to throw a bunch of snack foods together in a bag without giving thought to a balanced whole-foods meal. (It happens to the best of us.) Yet the demands of school and sports call for our kids to have optimal energy and nutrition. Are you setting your kids up for success?
Let’s be honest. Signing kids up for cafeteria lunches is convenient, and you may want to take advantage of that convenience sometimes. Cafeteria offerings are meant to give kids basic nutrition, but they are not optimized for nutrient density, brain power and physical energy. Plus, have you seen how much cafeteria food the kids throw in the trash?
When you make your own kids’ lunches, you have the chance to teach them how to make healthy meals, to prioritize nutrition, and to expand their palate. Remember, lunch is a meal, where they receive one-third of their daily nutrition intake. It also falls in the middle of the day, when their nutritional needs are at their peak. That’s a lot of pressure! But with a little forethought, planning and preparation, school lunches can be highly nutritious and a breeze to pull together.
Where to start?
We get in a rut with our thinking, believing that there are specific breakfast, lunch and dinner foods. But many traditional breakfast and lunch foods are high in refined carbohydrates (think cereal, muffins, pancakes, white bread, chips, cookies), which sets kids up for hunger pangs, blood sugar crashes and sugar cravings. Instead, we need to think about creating balanced meals.
What should go into a healthy lunch?
Lunches should have a good balance of all three macronutrients.
- Protein is critical for kids’ growth and mood, keeping blood sugar level, and keeping them full until their next meal. Excellent choices are hard boiled eggs, chicken or other meat chunks, tuna salad, beans, nuts, nut-butters, organic tofu and cheese (please, no processed cheese).
- Healthy fats are important for tip-top brain function and for keeping kids full until their next meal. Great choices are nuts and seeds, nut butters, avocados, olives, extra-virgin olive oil, and grassfed butter. Eggs are also a great source of healthy fats.
- Carbohydrates are energy food, fueling brains and bodies throughout the day. These should be in the form of unrefined complex carbohydrates. Best choices are vegetables, fruits, beans and 100% whole grains. It’s important to minimize refined grains and added sugars. White-flour foods such as white bread, tortillas, and white crackers should not be the focus of the meal. In addition, 2-3 servings of vegetables and fruits should be included in every meal – the more colorful the better.
Keep lunch interesting
Follow these tips for making lunches interesting and fun.
- Add flavor: Include flavorful dressings and dips, and prepare foods with tasty herbs and spices.
- Add color: This is easy to do when adding a diverse array of fruits and vegetables.
- Add crunch: Who doesn’t like some crunch in their meals? Healthy crunchy foods such as whole grain crackers (look for 100% whole grain, low sodium, at least 3 grams of fiber, no added sugar), sprouted seed cookies and seaweed snacks are fun choices. Raw vegetables also do the trick – try carrots, snap peas, cucumbers, celery, peppers and cherry tomatoes.
- Add warm foods: There’s nothing better than a warm meal on a cold day. Warm up soups, stews and last night’s dinner and put it in a Thermos to stay warm until lunchtime.
- Give them healthy desserts: Like adults, most kids like a little treat with their meal. Healthy choices are chia pudding, chocolate avocado pudding, fruit, a square of dark chocolate, or sprouted seed cookies.
Tips for success
Being well-prepared for the whole week is the key to easy healthy lunches.
- Meal planning: We often do meal planning for weekly dinners, but try meal planning for breakfasts and lunches too. Write down your weekday plan, create a shopping list and shop for everything at once.
- Batch preparation: Take a couple of hours on Sunday to chop and prepare foods. Boil eggs, cook meats, cook beans and grains. Chop up a few days’ worth of vegetables. You can even prepackage them into individual serving containers.
- Prepare lunch the evening before: Have everything ready in containers so that all foods can be quickly packed into a lunch box in the morning.
We often use the term “brown bag lunch” to describe lunches. For the nutrient-packed lunches described here, however, a brown bag may not be the best or sturdiest container. Fortunately, there are many creative options for lunch containers available. Some have individual sections for different foods, like a bento box. Some lunchboxes have sectioned trays that fit inside. You can also buy individual small containers of different shapes that can be put into a bigger lunchbox. Speaking of lunchboxes, there are all shapes and sizes available. Just like with backpacks, your kids can choose designs and characters that appeal to them. You can buy cold-packs to keep foods fresher longer. There are also small Thermoses available for warm foods. These fit into bigger lunchboxes. Look for eco-friendly options too, made from stainless steel instead of plastic.
Do you feel inspired to make healthy lunches for your kids now?