Whether they’re back in the classroom or learning from home, there’s one part to every child’s day that has the power to keep them focused and full: lunchtime. A nutritious lunch can boost your child’s brainpower for better learning, but how do you make sure you’re packing and providing the best food for your kids? We asked our partner, The Common Market Co-Op, for some advice on packing healthy lunches your kids will love.
“While there may be a learning curve for how to pack a fun, healthy kid’s lunch, with a few simple tips, you will be on your way,” says Common Market Outreach Coordinator Libby Nuss.
There’s no official formula for creating the perfect lunch for your child, but in general, a healthy packed lunch might include the following:
- A serving of fruit, such as sliced apples or a peeled orange
- A serving of vegetables, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, or pepper spears
- A meat or protein “main course,” such as a ham or peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread
- A dairy food, such as a stick of cheese or low-fat yogurt
- Water or low-fat milk to drink
Need some lunch-packing inspiration? Common Market’s got you covered with this helpful list of build-your-own lunch suggestions:
- Hardboiled egg
- Peanut butter
- Carrot sticks
- Cucumber spears
- Bell pepper pieces
- Cherry tomatoes
- Apple slices
- Sliced kiwi
- Cut melon
- Popped rice chips
- English muffin (try pairing with pepperoni and cheese for pizza)
- Granola bar
Making Lunch Fun
It’s no secret kids can be picky. Don’t be discouraged if your kids don’t touch some parts of your new-and-improved lunches for the first few days. It can take several attempts for your child to try something new, but here are some ways you can encourage them:
- Cut fruit and veggies into fun shapes. Healthy lunches don’t have to be boring! Bite sized food is more accessible for kids. Colorful berries, sliced apples, orange segments, carrot sticks, celery, snap peas, bell pepper, and cucumber spears are all great options.
- Add variety. Adding variety and texture to healthy options can make lunches more exciting. Consider adding freeze-dried fruit, veggie chips, or rice cakes to your child’s lunch for a nutritious snack.
- Ask for input. Learn what food your child likes and dislikes so you can pack more of what they’ll eat and less of what is wasted.
- Take a dip. Encourage healthy snacking by cutting strips of produce (for easy dipping!) and pairing them with dips like nut butters, hummus, and Ranch dressing.
- Help them become a Fruit & Veggie Color Champion. This fruit and veggie eater meter keeps track of the different produce your child tries and encourages them to try more.
- Roll it up. Tortillas are a very versatile lunch option, and different types of tortillas can offer benefits like added fiber or protein. Roll up lunch meat and cheese with a little mustard and pair with roasted nuts, a fruit, and a vegetable. For a vegetarian option, roll up refried beans, cheese, and black olives, and pair with salsa for dipping. Try to have fruits and veggies make up at least 50 percent of the lunch.
Also, Nuss suggests allowing your child to experiment in the kitchen with you, which can pique their interest in healthier options.
“If kids see their caregiver interested in and excited about healthy foods, over time that can increase their interest and normalize those options,” says Nuss. “Healthy, balanced eating occurs on a spectrum and should be fun. Letting kids experiment in the kitchen is a fun way to get to know your kids better and support their creativity.”
Pack This, Not That
Your kids may love finding cookies and chips in their lunchbox, but eating processed snacks can not only make your child less likely to focus on their schoolwork but also lead to weight gain and acne. Healthy, protein-packed lunches help your child stay focused and feel better—and they’re tasty, too!
Consider these suggestions for swapping out some lunchtime staples for healthier options:
- Instead of soda, sports drinks, or sugary juice, give your child a reusable water bottle to carry with them all day.
- Instead of processed treats like chips and cookies, try packing crunchy, salty snacks like roasted nuts, air-popped popcorn, or homemade trail mix.
- Instead of pre-packaged fruit cups and applesauce that often include added sugar, pack easy-to-eat apple slices, washed grapes, peeled oranges, or other fruits.
Are you having trouble getting your kids on board with healthier lunches? Try a 50/50 approach at first. For example, if your child is skeptical about switching to whole grain from fluffy white bread, try making a PBJ with one side white bread and the other side whole grain. The goal is for them to eventually eat 100 percent whole-grain lunches, but it’s okay to get your child used to these new foods first.
Healthy Food: Anywhere, Anytime
If your child learns from home, they might have a fridge free-for-all instead of a packed lunch. However, there are still ways to make sure they’re getting the right nutrition during the school day.
- Set a lunch schedule. It’s easy to get distracted or keep moving through lessons, but a lunch break is an excellent chance for your child to refuel and refocus.
- Prep easy snacks. It’s more likely that your child (and you) will eat healthy snacks if they’re readily available. Take time to wash and cut produce and keep it in an accessible area, like the front of your fridge or the kitchen counter.
- Learn about healthy eating. Make healthy eating part of your child’s curriculum. Use resources like LiveWell Frederick’s produce fact sheets to help them learn more about the food they eat.
Short on Time?
It’s a misconception that packing healthy lunches has to be a time-consuming task. Check out these time-saving lunch-packing tips from Common Market:
- Meal prep. This could mean making enough at dinner for leftovers (put the leftovers in lunch boxes as you are cleaning up!) or preparing lunches for several days at once. Since mornings can be hectic, packing lunches the night before can allow for more thoughtful, efficient preparation.
- Choose reusable containers. These bento boxes or food bags help with meal prep. Fill a couple for grab-and-go efficiency throughout the week. Each small compartment could be filled with nuts, berries, or cut veggies for quick sides.
- Keep staples on hand. Even the best plans fall through sometimes! Applesauce or canned fruit, tortillas or crackers, nut butter, and carrot sticks can always come through in a pinch.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember why you’re packing healthy lunches, says Nuss.
“Whether it’s to increase nutrition for the day, honor your budget, add variety, or optimize taste, having a ‘why’ can help keep you motivated,” Nuss says. “Also, be gentle with yourself—life needs balance. You’ll find your groove.”