Food & Nutrition

School Lunches They'll Love

Here are some quick, healthy brown-bag ideas (that kids will actually eat).
Published September 20, 2016

If you prepare a brown bag lunch for your child to take to school, you know the daily challenge it presents. What can you make quickly and easily that constitutes a healthy, nutritious lunch—and one that your son or daughter will actually like? When life gets hectic, it can be very tempting to quit spending the time and effort and just buy a prepackaged kids meal or send your child to the school with money for a cafeteria lunch.

If you truly want your little one to have a healthy lunch, however, that’s not the best move. A meal you prepare yourself — with ingredients you control—is usually far healthier and more nutritious than the typical lunch bought at the supermarket or school cafeteria.

“Up to about the seventh grade, many children are glad to have lunches brought from home,” says Sheri DeMaris, author of Healthy Kids in the Kitchen. “In cafeterias today, you’ll see a wide variety of foods in lunch boxes, including dinner leftovers — even sushi.”

Embrace the familiar

Refining your kid’s tastes in box lunch fare does take persuasion. “Kids like French fries — that’s just reality,” says chef and specialty caterer Susan Wolfe-Hill. “As you’re introducing healthy foods for lunch, you have to do some teaching and be imaginative yourself.”

Wolfe-Hill sees the lunchbox as an extension of healthful choices you make when you feed your child at home. “You start off trying to get from peanut butter and jelly on processed bread to the next step — maybe organic peanut butter in a cup, with a spoon, plus carrot sticks or celery.” Think of it as a gradual process in which your son or daughter acquires a taste for healthier fare. Wolfe-Hill has put her ideas into practice — with terrific results. Her catering business, The Balancing Act, won a Golden Carrot Award while operating the dining concession at Poughkeepsie Day School in upstate New York. This school-lunch award is given by the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to help counter childhood obesity and similar nutrition-related problems.

You provide, they decide

Kids have opinions, so let them express their gustatory preferences. Keep exposing them to fruits, vegetables, and whole grains of many varieties (start with ones that are most visually appealing). Then offer samples for tasting and let them tell you which of several they like best.

“Even with grapes and berries, which most kids like anyway, pick up five different varieties at the store,” suggests Johnnie Smith, a Los Angeles chef and caterer with a school-age son. “Wash them up and put them on your cutting board, then say, ‘Which three should we put in the container for you to eat today?’”

“My approach with my son is not to prohibit unhealthy foods,” says Smith. “I want him to try everything, and I’ll just keep steering him toward what’s good for him.” To emulate Smith’s approach, dust off your food processor and make a simple cauliflower purée — adding a small amount of salt, white pepper, and orange juice (not from concentrate) to the puréed veggie. “You can add that to noodles to make mac-and-cheese with a healthy substitute for the cheese sauce.”

Ditch the “healthy” packaging

Sometimes a little subterfuge can go a long way. “Potato chips or veggie chips that you bought in the organic section look pretty much like commercial chips when they’re in a clear baggie,” says Wolfe-Hill. Even classic sandwiches can get a subtle but healthy makeover, says DeMaris. “Go down the natural-food aisle and pick out the healthy bread, organic corn tortillas, and other wraps,” she says. “Then pick out your organic peanut butter, natural hummus, tofu mayonnaise, local cheeses, and focus on getting the most nutritional value out of each.”

Remember, when the lunch bell rings, even an unadventurous young eater is primed to chow down on whatever’s been provided. And an occasional note saying, "Have a great day," will round out the menu very nicely.