Tips for Packing Healthy Lunches for Your Kids

Parents may be getting a bad rap these days, as recent studies reveal what children are taking to school in their lunch boxes is less healthy than what they would be served in the school cafeteria. One study in Virginia found that 60 percent of packed lunches from home contained a dessert. Dessert is okay, right? Well, nearly 20 percent of those lunches had two or more desserts. That’s something you won’t find on a cafeteria tray. About 40 percent of those lunches from home also had a soda or sugary drink. Yikes. A side-by-side comparison of more than 1300 lunches of preschoolers and kindergarteners in the study shows where home lunches versus school lunches stand nutritionally.

Graphic 1 – Lunches from Home

Graphic 2 – Lunches Served at School

In the rush of getting the kids up, dressed, breakfast on the table and teeth brushed, spending time packing lunches likely gets less attention than it deserves. Today, we’re sharing tips to help parents in a time-crunch send their children to school with lunches they can be proud of.

Re-think the PB&J. One of the easiest, yet biggest traps for parents is making the same basic lunch every day. Instead of the peanut butter (or nut-free butter for some schools) and jelly sandwich, think in terms of themes. From Meatless Mondays to Breakfast for Lunch and even Leftovers for Lunch, get creative and explore new options for your child’s lunch. To make this something that is actually a reasonable option at 7 a.m., think ahead when you are at the grocery store and pick up items that would be perfect for a fun school lunch – tortillas for roll-ups, cupcake tins to hold fruit or vegetables or even cookie cutters to make fun shapes of sandwiches or fruit. (Hint: Don’t let the leftovers actually look like leftovers. A nice panda shape would be better.)

Change the presentation by changing the packaging – a win for less trash and more interest in the lunchbox. Special box inserts for lunchboxes are now popular items as they reduce the need for individually bagged items, while also keeping everything neatly in place. You can find these at the grocery story or specialty stores. They are easy to clean in the dishwasher each night and provide a canvas with which your new creations can really shine. Those grapes and cucumber slices look more appetizing in their own compartment of a container than they did in a plastic bag. Pinterest is full of suggestions, but don’t get overwhelmed. Take the basic concepts and apply it to work for you. Don’t worry about all the extra decorations or Mickey Mouse faced sandwiches.

Don’t forget the best-supporting sides. Instead of a bag of chips, here’s an opportunity to add more nutrition and interest to your child’s lunch. Baby carrots, bell pepper slices, string cheese and even a perfect-sized salad are great additions to the main course. Just try not to stick with the same sides every lunch. Add in new ones to try each week. Add dips like humus or Greek yogurt dill dip. Cut sides into bite-sized pieces to make them as ready to eat as possible. (Hint: That giant orange is not going to peel itself.)

Still can't find enough time in the morning rush? Try prepping at least most of the lunch the evening before and make sure everything stays properly refrigerated. Before you know it, you’ll be whipping up culinary works like the pros at Bon Appetit. When you’re ready to take it to the next level, they have 25 lunches to get you started.