Kids attend approximately 2,350 days of school between kindergarten and high school graduation. That’s a lot of brown-bag lunches that you inevitably have to prep—and hope that they actually eat.
The key to making sure your kid doesn’t come home with a half-eaten lunch and dismissive remarks about your packing skills? Variety. “Include foods that kids love, but also foods you want them to love because they’re healthy and nutritious,” says pediatrician Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH, practicing in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and co-author of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (The Experiment, October 2015). Dr. Fernando is the founder of the Doctor Yum Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes healthy eating at school and home. “Ideally, pack one or two things they like along with one or two things they’re still learning to like.”
In fact, that advice is smart no matter how old you are. These tips will help you earn an A+ in lunch prep for your kids—and for yourself.
Be realistic about kids’ appetites and the time they have to eat by keeping portions modest, especially for younger children. “No kid is going to eat an adult-size sandwich when they’re rushing to finish up and go outside to play,” says Dafna Chazin, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, who has two kids. How long it takes for your child to eat the food should also be taken into account for the same reason—recess has a stronger pull than baby carrots that take a while to chew.
Refresh the sandwich.
Put new twists on familiar combos. Instead of PB&J, swap in sunflower-seed butter and banana slices. Instead of ham and cheese, try smoked turkey and avocado. Or salmon salad layered with cucumber slices instead of tuna with chopped celery.
Stuff it or wrap it.
Many different ingredients can be rolled into a tortilla wrap or pita stuffed in a pita pocket—even last night’s leftovers. Think stir-fry, taco fixings, or even meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Keep things fresh.
Pack at least one fresh fruit and one vegetable, says Dr. Fernando. “Like adults, kids need at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, so lunch is a great opportunity to check off two.” Take your kid to the supermarket on weekends and let them pick out one exotic-looking fruit and vegetable (dragonfruit and star fruit can be fun, along with rainbow carrots, tomatoes, or peppers in different colors).
One carb-based snack and one protein/healthy-fat item should complete the school lunch, says Dr. Fernando. The protein/fat item might be nuts, string cheese, low-sugar yogurt, or a hard-boiled egg—or a scoop of peanut butter, hummus, or yogurt-based dip in which kids can dunk fruit and veggies.
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Drop in an occasional treat. “A healthy lunch is a balanced lunch—and balance can include a chocolate, a small candy, or a cookie every so often,” says Liz Blom, RDN, a Maple Grove, Minnesota, mother of two school-age daughters and founder of a nutrition-consulting company, appropriately called Veggies and Chocolate.
Make your kid your sous chef.
“I get my picky eaters on board by having them help choose items while they’re eating breakfast,” says Lauren Golden, a mother of three young children in Katy, Texas, and creator of the advice website thefreemama.com. “I offer mom-approved choices, but they ultimately determine what makes it into the lunch. They take pride in picking what they want and are more likely to eat it.”