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10 Ideas for Healthy Lunchboxes Your Kids Will Eat

I really want to support the public school lunch program, but with my children’s sensitivities, my particular views on health and my parental need to make sure they eat enough, instead of being the mom who comes in and asks to read every ingredient label and drills them on their intake, I pack my kids lunches.  No matter what they have for lunch at school, though, I worry about my girls not eating it all – eating only the Cheesepuffs and cookie (even if it is sugar and wheat free) I put in their box and leaving the rest.  It’s a hard task for them to socialize and eat on their own in typically just twenty minutes.  I want my children’s energy, mood and mental clarity to be sustained at school, I prefer not to have a cranky kid after school, and I don’t want them to get bored with their lunch (“peanut-butter and jelly again?!”).  These lunchbox ideas below will ensure their belly is full, the box is empty and they are nourished.  They also won’t take much time or planning to implement.  Try them with your kids!

  1. Granola bars: We know they will eat them, but they are expensive and there are very few with ingredients I approve of (sugar). I finally found a super easy recipe that makes non-crumbly, healthy granola bars.  I will surely have these on hand all the time!  (Here’s an even easier one – no bake:

Snackin’ Granola Bars (per The Quaker Oats Wholegrain Cookbook)

3 ½ cups oats                                  1 cup raisins                                              1 cup chopped nuts

2/3 cup butter, melted                    ½ to ¾ cup honey or maple syrup         1 egg, beaten

½ tsp vanilla                                  ½ tsp salt

Combine all the ingredients, mix well.  Press firmly into well-greased 13×9 inch glass pan.  Bake in preheated oven (300°F) about 30 minutes.  Cool; cut into bars.  Store in tightly covered container in cool dry place for refrigerator. Variations: add shredded coconut, carob powder (over chocolate chips), coconut oil instead of butter, nut butter added, or seeds!  I add a ¼ cup of flour to help ensure non-crumbly-ness.

  1. Yogurt: We all know how much kids love yogurt and it is a great option for lunches, but opt for the plain yogurt (only sugar-free route) and add fruit instead (frozen fruit keeps the yogurt cold too!)

  2. Vary the sandwich:

  • Breads – Vary up the bread to find options with better nutrition: English muffins, sourdough, tortilla wraps, rice cakes… just check the ingredient list to make sure they are free of heavy sugars and artificial ingredients. Corn bread may be a nice way to mix in some veggies (cut green pepper and whole corn can be added) and is quick to whip up:

Corn Bread (per Better Homes and Gardens)

3/4 cup – yellow cornmeal* 1 cup – flour 2-3 Tablespoons – sweetener (I use maple syrup) 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 3/4 teaspoon – salt 1 Tablespoon butter 2 eggs, beaten 1 cup milk 1/4 cup oil or melted butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  In medium bowl stir together flour, cornmeal, sweetener, baking powder and salt.  Set aside.    Add butter  to cast-iron skillet and place in oven about 3 minutes.  Swirl butter in pan to coat bottom and sides of pan.  In a small bowl combine eggs, milk and oil.  Add all at once to flour mixture.  Stir just until moistened.  Pour batter into hot skillet.  Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick comes clean.* Use Certified Organic Cornmeal to avoid GMOs.

  • Bean spreads – Vary up the peanut butter with bean spreads, including hummus. Here is a recipe for a great white bean sandwich:

Smashed White Bean and Avocado Sandwich (per Culinary Colleen)

2 15-oz cans white beans, rinsed/drained               2 T olive oil

Juice of half a lemon                                                Salt & pepper, to taste

8 slices multigrain bread, toasted           1 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 cucumber, thinly sliced                         2 avocados, pitted/thinly sliced

5 ounces arugula or sprouts (or kale or spinach!)

Combine the beans, olive oil, and lemon juice in a medium bowl. Roughly mash until it comes together but is still a little chunky. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide the bean mixture among four slices of the bread, spreading in a single layer. Top each with some red onion, sliced cucumber, avocado, and arugula or sprouts. Season with additional salt and pepper. Top with the remaining slices of bread and serve.

  • PB&J alternates – Instead of PB&J try tahini (sesame seed butter) and honey! Or almond butter and apple butter/slices!

  • Burrito – Biggest mealtime hit in my family is refried beans and cheese on a wrap. You can brown it briefly in safflower oil or send it uncooked.  Sneak in something green.

  • What other foods do they love that you can put on a sandwich? Avocado? Bacon? Pesto? Olives?

  1. Sprouts: Sprouts are a great way to add packed protein to kids’ lunches, and, believe it or not, they love them. Pack them on the side or pile on a turkey sandwich.  You can buy them but they are super easy and affordable to sprout yourself (and an educational tool for your kids).

  2. Hard-boiled Eggs: Don’t forget this quick way to get heavy vitamins in their foods. Boil extra eggs on Monday morning and you’ll have some for the whole week.

  3. Vegetables: How to make sure kids eat their veggies?

  • Cucumbers and bell peppers are always a hit.

  • Many kids love dipping – try ranch or hummus with raw veggies.

  • Try shredding broccoli/cauliflower on their turkey sandwich or mix them into leftovers.

  • There are great dehydrated veggie packs available.

  • My kids also think frozen veggies are a treat – pack the thermos with ‘em.

  • Puree leftover soups

  1. Fruit: I know, kids already love fruit but I couldn’t help but share this recipe for homemade, healthy fruit leather.

Fruit Leather (per Ball’s Blue Book Guide to Preserving):

Apples, apricots, berries (all kinds), cherries, nectarines, peaches, pears, pineapple and plums make excellent fruit leathers.  Bananas are wonderful blended with other fruits for a smooth, naturally sweet, finished product.  Fresh fruit in season has the best flavor; however, to not overlook canned or frozen fruits which may be used any time of the year.  Wash fruit; cut away blemished areas; peel, if necessary; remove pits or seeds.  Puree fruit in a blender until smooth.  If too thick, thin with a little water or fruit juice.  Fruits that oxidize (apples, nectarines, peaches and pears) should be heated to 190°F and allowed to cool before proceeding.  Cover drying trays with heavy, food-grade plastic wrap or use specifically designed sheets that come with most dehydrators.  Spread puree evenly, about 1/8 inch think in the center to ¼ inch think at the edges, on dehydrator trays.  Dry at 135°F until fruit puree feels pliable and leather like.  Check center to be sure there are no sticky spots.  Roll jelly-roll style, while still warm; cut in pieces and seal securely in plastic wrap.  Store fruit leather in home canning jars for long-term storage.

  1. Rice! Easy to cook in large batches.  Here is a fun way to use it.

Rice Balls:

Start with what you want on the inside – veggies or fish, avocado or cilantro, and gather it into a tiny ball.  Wet leftover brown rice or cook fresh white sticky rice and wrap the rice around the inside ball.  Optional: roll it in sesame seeds.  Then wrap nori around it (kids love seaweed). Include soy sauce or Bragg’s Aminos for dipping.

  1. Asian Peanut Noodles: Here is a great menu item for kids who like pasta.

Boil your favorite noodle (brown rice spaghetti noodles work great), rise them cold.  Shred some carrots and cucumber.  Mix peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar and a little bit of honey together.  Let the kids eat them separate or mix them all up on their own in their lunchbox.  They can also practice their chopstick skills if they like.

  1. Personalize: The key is to pack the way you know your kid will eat. One of my daughters will only eat her sandwich in parts – each food by itself.  My other daughter eats, for example, bread with bean spread and lettuce, but the cucumbers on the side.  Cut up things into bites, and add a toothpick for fun.  Celery at my house is never eaten when cut in strips, but when cut into nibblets they gobble them up!

Now to put it all together!  When packing lunches, pick:

  • 1 “growing” food (grain and protein)

  • 1 fruit

  • 1 veggie, and

  • 1 “fun” food to fill in the gaps: pretzels, muffin/scone (these store well, too), corn chips, trail mix, extra fruit or veg, or extra protein (e.g. beef sticks).

  • Remember that legumes (green beans, corn, peas, lentils, beans, peanuts) are part of a complete protein when put with a grain.

  • Drinks? WATER!  It’s all they need.  They’ll be thirsty.

May these ideas inspire you.  I hope you’ll try them and share how your kids do with their lunches.

Great nutrition is so important, and an easy preventative measure for so many other troubles for our kiddos.  I’ve decided, in order to offer myself some more security, to do two other things with their lunches (which I hope I shouldn’t need to do for very long).  I’m going to put little wooden numbers in my youngest daughter’s box so she knows which item to eat first (most important), second, etc.  I am also going to buy my children’s health by offering them a penny for each day they return with an empty box.  I think they may get wealthy, in more ways than one.

Update 12/7/16:  Summer sausage, nitrate free, became a happy addition for my kids.  I have also been using frozen baby teethers to keep their lunches cold.

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