Packing a healthy lunch box can be challenging for busy families who are constantly on the go. You can help your children get a healthy start to the school year with uncomplicated lunches that are easy for you and your family to prep.
“About 40% of a child’s daily meals are consumed in school,” said Dr. Maria Cristina Soriano, a pediatrician at St. Joseph Health Pediatrics in Bryan. “This may come from three different sources. First, the federally-sponsored lunches. Second, food from the school stores or vending machines, and third, from packed lunches from home.”
Dr. Soriano suggests parents can encourage healthy eating by including their children in shopping and prepping. Your children can make choices about what they would like to include in their lunches, from the type of soup or bread to sandwich fillings, fruits, and vegetables.
Planning Colorful, Nutritious Lunches
“Having a plan simplifies meal prep,” said Dr. Soriano. “By planning lunches for the week, you can make sure meals are nutritious and well put together,” she said. “And, include your children in meal prep.”
Dr. Soriano encourages parents to shop the perimeter of the store for fresh foods, limiting processed and packaged foods that are located in the middle aisles. “These items don’t have as many nutrients and can contain too much sugar or salt.”
Lunches that are colorful can be very appealing to children. “Use all the senses,” said Dr. Soriano. “Sense of sight—show them the colors of the rainbow and how beautiful certain foods are. Sense of smell—ripe fruits smell fresh and sweet. Sense of touch—let them feel the different textures of fruits and vegetables. Sense of taste—feel the texture of multigrain bread on the tongue.”
“Finding fun ways to showcase the meal, such as using clear sandwich bags, a bento-box style container, silicone muffin cups, or cutting sandwiches with cookie cutters are some ways to add interest to the meal,” said Dr. Soriano.
When planning meals, make sure lunches cover all major food groups. Include a whole grain, a protein, a fruit, a vegetable, and a dairy product without exceeding your child’s caloric needs.
Try some of the following ideas for snacks and lunches:
Fresh or dried fruit: apples, bananas, peaches, nectarines, pears, cherries, grapes, plums (sliced or pitted), orange or grapefruit sections, strawberries, grapes (cut in half for small children), dates, prunes, raisins, and cranberries
Vegetables: carrot sticks, celery sticks, raw or steamed cauliflower or broccoli, bell pepper strips, grape and cherry tomatoes, fresh or frozen corn and peas, sliced cucumbers, and avocado slices or chunks
Lean proteins: fish (canned tuna, salmon, sardines, whitefish), peanut butter or other nut butters (smooth, spread on whole-grain bread or crackers), edamame beans or chickpeas, hummus spreads, cooked tofu cubes or tofu dip, and hard-boiled eggs
Dairy products: cheese (sliced, grated, or diced), cottage cheese, low-sugar yogurt, and milk (cow’s milk or non-dairy milks)
Breads and cereals: whole-wheat bread, whole-grain tortillas or tortilla chips, whole-grain crackers, whole-grain dry cereals, rice cakes, whole-grain pitas and bagels, and air-popped popcorn
For children under 4 years of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents avoid packing foods that are round, hard, small, thick, sticky, smooth, or slippery due to the potential choking hazard.
Your child’s pediatrician can provide nutrition tips and guidance for creating a healthy lunch for a productive and energetic start to the school year.
Maria Cristina Soriano, MD