School Lunches That Pack a Nutritional Punch

These tips take stress out of midday meals.
By Amanda Skrip

With the back-to-school season upon us, it’s time to start thinking about what to put in our children’s lunch boxes. We know that the food our kids eat will fuel their growth, development, and health, but are the meals they’re eating away from home as nutritious as they can be?

The “wrong” foods can lead to blood-sugar crashes that may cause fatigue and make it difficult to focus during class. Pack lunches that your kids will love eating and that you can feel good about! With a bit of knowhow, you can easily create balanced midday meals that will fuel your children’s days with increased energy, improved attention, and positive moods.

1 Learn to Subtract

A healthy lunch has as much to do with what to leave out as it does with what to put in. Ditch sugary juice boxes and flavored milks in favor of water. Purchase a reusable container to fill with filtered water for an earth-friendly alternative to plastic bottles. This ensures your child is hydrated without being loaded up with unnecessary sugar and empty calories. Sandwiches are popular lunchtime fare, but skip processed meats. They can be high in sodium and contain nitrates, hormones, and antibiotics. Look for meats that are fresh-roasted in-house, or try doing it yourself!

Go vegetarian and use peanut butter (almond or sunflower seed butter are great for peanut-free schools) or hummus as a sandwich spread. Dairy products, like yogurts and string cheese, can also be a big hit with kids. If possible, upgrade from conventional dairy and choose organic varieties to reduce exposure to harmful hormones and antibiotics.

Lastly, be sure to leave out nutrient-dead processed snacks and sweets, especially if they contain high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. These foods are also usually rich in refined flours, sugars, chemicals, and additives, none of which are a part of a balanced, healthful diet.

2 Add-In Brain Food

Now that we’ve removed the junk, it’s time to pack in the good stuff. Focus on bulking up on fresh, whole foods. Fruits and vegetables should be a part of every meal, and school lunch is not an exception. Include seasonal fruit in every lunch. Bananas, apples, berries, melons, mangos—anything works! Vary the fruits you add to keep it interesting and increase exposure to a multitude of vitamins and antioxidants.

To add a serving of vegetables, try sliced carrots, cucumber, or bell peppers. Most kids like the crunch of these vegetables and love eating them with a dip such as a dressing or bean spread. You can also try adding leftover steamed or roasted vegetables from last night’s dinner. Broccoli, cauliflower, or green beans are all great additions. Whole-grains also deserve a space in all lunch boxes. They will help keep blood-sugar levels stable, and keep energy and mood in balance. Choose a sprouted or 100-percent whole grain bread, tortilla, or pita for a fresh take on sandwiches. Try a pasta salad using whole-grain noodles, cherry tomatoes, and a simple olive oil and lemon dressing. Better yet, include grains in their “whole form” by making a quinoa, brown rice, or farro salad with vegetables and beans.

3 Think Outside The Box

It’s easy to get into a lunchtime rut. If your children are tired of boring sandwiches, switch it up! Use cookie cutters to transform sandwiches into favorite shapes for a fun lunch-box surprise. Package warm soups or stews in a thermos for a hearty and comforting meal; this is also a great way to sneak in an extra serving of veggies. Try grain or green salads, quesadillas, or sushi. Hard-boiled eggs, frittatas, or quiche are great sources of protein. Get creative and make batches of healthy muffins or cookies for a treat! It’s even better to get your kids involved in the baking! You will have control over the ingredients, and they will take pride in contributing a sweet snack to look forward to!

4 Do Your Homework

Chances are, like most busy families, your mornings are hectic and rushed; packing lunches may become an afterthought and you’re lucky if you can even remember! Take some time on Sunday to plan for the week ahead. Make a list of what you need for lunches, shop, and do a little preparation so the week will run smoothly. It is helpful to think about lunch and dinner together; make extra pasta for dinner to use as a lunchtime pasta salad. Or, while chopping vegetables for an evening stew, cut a few extra for the lunch boxes. Use the weekend to prepare fresh fruit, make soup or quesadillas, or bake a treat. It is also great to pack up lunches the evening before so they are ready to grab and go.