Back To School: Easy Healthy School Lunches Your Kid Can Make (Yes, Really)
OK, so we've gone over morning routines, how to get your kid ready for daily stressors, and now? How to get them to pack their own lunches—healthy, satisfying, and fulfilling lunches, that is. Of course, depending on your kid's age, this might take some supervising. But if they're getting to that just-old-enough age, it's likely time to encourage them to start doing it themselves. Not only will this give them some agency, but it will get another to-do off your checklist.
"If you want your kid to eat healthy, it needs to be accessible. This is like a super Montessori method thing, but if you want your kid to hang up their coat, you need to have a hook at their level," says Maya Feller, R.D., M.S. "So if you want them to make their own lunches, you need to have everything within their reach. The other thing is they need to feel comfortable in the kitchen: So when they ask if they can help cook dinner? The answer is 'absolutely.'"
And this doesn't mean you're going to be totally hands-off: "At first do a regular spot check on their lunches. Once they've got it down, do random checks every now and then," says author and American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Natalie Digate Muth, M.D.
All of this will likely mean, too, that you will need to do some planning at the start of the week. This way, you can have things on hand that your kid won't be able to cook up in the morning: pulled chicken, a batch of hard-boiled eggs, grilled veggies, pasta noodles. "When it comes to kids putting their meals together, it's best to think of it like an episode of Semi-Homemade, where the parent, or the parent and kid, do some meal prep beforehand with the heavy lifting, like roasted veggies and baking a chicken breast. This way, your whole kitchen is basically all kid-ready for them to combine whatever looks appealing in the moment," according to Brigitte Zeitlin, R.D. and owner of BZ Nutrition.
Of course, another option: If you're one to pack your lunches as well, make a habit of making your lunch right alongside them. "If you want your kids to eat healthy, lead by example! Lay out a broad selection of nutritious foods, and pack your lunch with your child, showing them how you combine items to prepare a delicious, nutritious meal while giving them the freedom to pick and choose the items that appeal to them," says Whitney English, M.S., RDN, at Plant-Based Juniors.
Load up on healthy sides.
You can have a lot of fun with sides by keeping tons of fun, colorful options around (they double as great after-school snacks). And if you're really in a pinch? Opt for a bento-box-style lunch and do multiple "sides" to make a whole. "You just toss in a few things—hard-boiled eggs, fruits, vegetables, popcorn, and a dip—and you have a full meal," says Feller.
Shelled edamame: "These are full of protein and healthy fats," says English.
Easy-prep veggies: "With young kids, you might hear them say that baby carrots are hard for them to eat, even though we think they are so small. Instead, go for a baggie of shredded carrots. Grape tomatoes are also great. And Persian cucumbers can be sliced with a butter knife, if you're scared of kids using a sharp knife," says Feller.
Sliced red bell peppers with Trader Joe's Everything but the Bagel spice sprinkled on top: "Either pre-slice the veggies with your kid or get them those kid-friendly chef's knives. This side dish is high in vitamin C, which will help to boost their immunity and prevent colds (which they get too easily!), and everyone loves shaking on a yummy topping," says Zeitlin.
Hard-boiled eggs: "These make for a kid-friendly meal addition because it has high-quality protein that will keep them feeling satisfied through the day while also offering up lutein, a nutrient found in yolks that has been positively associated with boosting academic performance in children," says Zeitlin.
Halos mandarin oranges: "The perfect, portable snack for little hands. They can just toss them in their backpack and peel later," says English.
Cheese and crackers: "And a part-skim cheese stick with four whole-grain crackers is a super-simple combo to put together that will help boost their calcium intake for the day, building strong bones," says Zeitlin.
Not-so-basic mains made easy.
Pasta salad: "Cook a big batch of whole-wheat or legume pasta, and allow kids to add their favorite mix-ins. Corn, black beans, kidney beans, green peas, edamame, cherry tomatoes, cubed tofu, avocado, and cucumbers are some of our favorites. Toss with olive oil, vinegar, and your favorite spices," says English.
Pinwheels: "Put all of your favorite sandwich toppings—hummus and veggies or nut butter and jelly—on a whole-wheat tortilla. Roll it up and slice into 1-inch rounds. It's like a sandwich but way more fun," says English.
Mezze Platter: "Slice up a pita into wedges and have your child pick their favorite items to add to their spread. Some options include hummus, olive tapenade, eggplant dip, sliced veggies, tofu skewers, or quinoa salad," says English.
Tuna salad: "A fun dish alone or on a sandwich. Mix it up with some diced carrots, celery, and instead of mayo, use a little honey and mustard," says Zeitlin.
Quesadillas: "You can put anything in these, like beans, veggies, and cheese. My son makes these in the morning," says Feller.
"Leftovers are a godsend for busy parents. You can make an old meal feel new and exciting again by packaging it in a unique way," says English. "Try using bell peppers as 'cups' for casseroles or stir-fries. Tuck leftover main dishes into a pita, or roll them up in a tortilla for a portable lunch option. Allow children to make their own kebabs with leftover foods using fun, kid-friendly skewers."
And remember how you want to let kids help you make dinner? That will help here, too. "Also, kids are more likely to gravitate toward the leftovers if they had a hand in making them or even picked the dish to begin with, so ask them to help plan out dinners with you for the week, and try to have them get involved with at least one item a night," says Zeitlin.
Sweets are a treat.
A good rule for desserts or junk food in lunches, according to Feller? Skip it unless they specifically ask for something. "The way that we interact with desserts in my house is that it is not always after a meal; however, if my kids do ask for it, we allow for it," says Feller. Muth agrees: "Kids get a lot of sugar in their days anyway, without them being a built-in part of their lunch." Of course, this can be challenging if the kids are making their own meals. So just make sure that these options are tucked away, so they actually have to ask for them—instead of having them on hand for every meal. But when they do ask for some sweets, here are some better-for-them options.
Always add in fruits, so it's not just sweets: "Take one individual square of chocolate (70% cacao) with five strawberries—it will feel like a deconstructed chocolate-covered strawberry! Or we also like two dates sliced open with a little peanut butter in the center and three or four chocolate chips on top," says Zeitlin.
Homemade, simple-ingredient desserts: "Try swapping store-bought cookies for homemade cookies (like these). Since you're making them at home, you can add in their favorite mix-ins," says English.
What about food restrictions?
"Peanut allergies are becoming more common, and, therefore, some schools don't allow kids to bring food with nuts. Sunflower butter and other seed butters are a great swap for peanut butter in sandwiches, snacks, or baked goods," says English. "Gluten-free kids have tons of options these days with the wide variety of gluten-free breads, pastas, and baked goods on the market. I often swap bean-based pasta like the Green Lentil Elbows from Tolerant for regular pasta in mac 'n' cheese, and my son absolutely loves it!"
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