The Lunch Box

Packing your child’s lunch box on a daily basis can be a dreaded task.  Whether it’s the lack of creativity in the early morning (or late at night) and/or the restrictions from your picky little eater, it can make you want to give them a couple dollars and shoo them out the door.  You also don’t want to find out your child traded your well-thought out, nutritious sack lunch for a sugary soda and chicken fingers.  So to keep your little one loving what’s in their lunch box day after day, how about thinking out of the “lunch” box and get creative! 

LUNCH BOX CREATIVITY 101

The Sandwich

I’m know every kid gets really tired of the same old peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  They see their friends eating pizza and know they got the short end of the stick.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  Here are some tips on sprucing up the sometimes tried and true version of a sandwich!

  • Make it a Wrap!  Instead of bread, use a whole wheat tortilla for the base and include some tasty ingredients.  Use turkey with cheese, lettuce, and low-fat ranch for a savory lunch or PB&J with honey and banana if they have more of a sweet tooth.   
  • Burrito Bowl!  Use leftover protein from dinner the night before to make a burrito bowl.  Add chicken/turkey/beans with some rice, cheese, and a little salsa for the perfectly balanced lunch.  And I'm sure the lunch lady won't mind heating it up in the microwave. 
  • Cereal for Lunch?!  Cereal is a great sandwich replacement for the lunch box.  Pack your child's favorite cereal in tupperware, cut up some fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, bananas), and give your child a couple dollars to purchase milk from the cafeteria.  Protein and complex carbohydrates make up a great lunch.
  • Pizza Pita Pocket!  If your child loves Pita Pockets, this is the healthier, home-made version.  Slice a whole-wheat pita in half and add cheese, turkey pepperoni and marinara sauce.  You could even add a little side of low-fat ranch dressing if they like the combo. Yummy!
  • Lunchables!  The Lunchables brand you can purchase in the store tends to be loaded with calories, fat, and preservatives.  If your child loves the bite-sized items, making your own is a much more economical and healthy option.  Cut up meat (which ever your child prefers), add cheese slices (Laughing Cow Cheese Wedges are awesome!), some crackers (portion size by serving!!) and ta da! Your very own Lunchable. 

The Sides

Cut up carrots and apple slices, while very healthy, can be very B-O-R-I-N-G.  Add some nutrient-dense snacks so your child doesn't feel the need to trade the carrots for Twizzlers or Skittles.  

  • Apples with a Twist! Adding a little side of almond or sunflower butter (they really won't know the difference from peanut butter) or a little caramel sauce is the perfect dip for apples.  Make sure to portion size on both (1 tablespoon).
  • Fruit Leather!  These are great snacks that are low in calories, low in sugar, and kids love them.  Trader Joe's sells a variety of fruit leathers in many different flavors.  They also sell fruit snacks that are natural and low in sugar.
  • Cinnamon Tortilla Chips!  I love these sweet chips and kids will too.  Using whole wheat tortillas, brush each side with a little oil (spray olive oil is the best), sprinkle an even amount of cinnamon and sugar, cut into little wedges and then bake at 350 for 10 minutes or until crisp.  Adding a side of cottage cheese (1/4 cup) is a healthy, well-balanced snack.
  • Baked Chips!  If your child insists on having store-bought chips or crackers, make sure they are the baked variety.  This will help cut back on calories and fat but still have the flavor and crunch they are wanting.
  • Veggies and Dip!  Cut up carrots, celery, and/or cucumber and pair with their favorite sauce.  Hummus, low-fat ranch, low-fat Thousand Island, or salsa can spice up these rather bland veggies. 

For more snack ideas, check out my blog, SNACK TIME, to really amp up your lunch box creativity.  

The Drink

Typical fruit juices, flavored water and sodas are loaded with sugar and preservatives that we would prefer our children not consume at such an early age.  If they do insist on having these sugary beverages, make sure to limit it to a couple times a week or only on a certain "special" day of the week.  This way they will look forward to having their favorite drink in their lunch box, rather than having it be an every day occurence.  Here are some other suggestions to use during the other days of the week.

  • Personalized Flavored Water!  Have your child make their own flavored water.  Add their favorite fruit or veggie to the water and let it sit overnight to soak up the natural flavors of the produce.  Strawberries, lemon, cucumber, oranges, pineapple, lime, mint, or pear are the best fruits and veggies to choose from.  Perhaps you can also add a touch of seltzer/club soda to give them the bubbles that they like.
  • Fruit Juices!  When purchasing fruit juices, always look for ones that are 100% juice and NOT from concentrate. 
  • Ditch the Diet Soda! Diet soda is filled with chemical preservatives that should not be consumed by children.  Just because it doesn't have any calories or sugar, doesn't mean that it is the "healthier" version.  Eliminate sodas all together.

For the days when time is short and the lunch box stays in the pantry, regain your confidence with your school's cafeteria food choices.  Recently, the government has taken drastic measures to “healthify” school menus.  President Obama and the USDA have implemented a new rule to update the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, included in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.  This new ruling will require schools to make critical changes to their menus, offering more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat and fat-free milk.  Furthermore, schools must limit saturated fat, sodium, calories, and trans fats in all meals.  This is great progress for our school systems and the children (and adults) that eat in them every day.  Hopefully the future generations will look a little less “large” and a little more healthier by the changes starting to pop up in school cafeterias across America.

For more information about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010, please go to this website.

For more information about the Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, please go to this website.

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Jill Latham, MS Nutrition, Food Science and Dietetics

Throughout Jill’s life, nutrition, health, and exercise have always been the cornerstones of who she is. After a stint in the entertainment business following college graduation, Jill decided to go back to school to pursue a graduate degree in Nutrition and become a Registered Dietitian. Jill has a Master's of Science in Nutrition, Food Science and Dietetics and is a soon to be Registered Dietitian. Jill truly enjoys encouraging and teaching people how to eat nutritiously and live healthy! During her four years in school, Jill realized how much she liked educating children on the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, which lead her to develop a strong interest in fighting childhood obesity. Honored to be part of ChildCareInfo.com as the Nutrition contributor, she looks forward to sharing her knowledge on how to make healthy living a part of everyone’s lives, especially our children. Jill currently resides in Santa Barbara, California with her boyfriend and dog, Madison. She also loves to juice fruits and vegetables on a daily basis and exercise regularly! Please visit Jill’s nutrition, health, exercise, & wellness blog Nutrition Concierge. Jill is Founder and CEO of Vibrant Earth Juices