Here's a simple (sometimes surprising) menu for quick and healthy lunch-prep, from NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, RD and NutriFormance’s director of nutrition. (Bonus: They work for adult lunches, too.)
About 1 in 5 kids aged 2 to 19 struggles with being overweight or obesity. Not only do obese children experience more bullying and teasing, they also face the same comorbidities as adults with the condition, including type 2 diabetes and breathing problems. (1,2) As fitness professionals, we know how eating habits can impact the body. Choosing the right fuel can help kids develop better lifelong eating habits, safely shed excess weight, and feel better and more alert throughout the school day.
Perhaps one of the biggest food challenges faced by parents is the school lunch. When kids are outside the home, we can’t oversee what they eat or don’t eat. While some may be making less-than-ideal selections, others may be skipping the meal entirely for a variety of reasons: long lunch lines, limited options, a soggy packed sandwich, or a lunch period too early or late in the day, to name a few common kid complaints.
“If kiddos end up having a nonnutritive lunch, they might be going without proper fuel from 7 in the morning to 5 p.m. at night,” says Emily Bailey, RD, CSSD, LD, NASM-CPT, and director of nutrition for NutriFormance in St. Louis, Mo. Taking in too little fuel can contribute to fatigue, concentration problems at school, and a greater likelihood of injury during after school sports. If this becomes a trend, kids may fall behind on the growth charts and “that bone mass they have the opportunity to build, especially during high school,” she says.
5 Categories to Pack…or Put on Your Tray
“Packing is generally a healthier option than buying a school lunch,” says Bailey. “It’s basically the same stance we take when talking about why it’s healthier to eat at home than to eat out.”
For one thing, parents can better control the sodium, added sugars, saturated fat and nutrient density of the foods that kids put in their lunch box. They can also be sure that their child won’t be swayed by the nacho bar or their friend’s cast-off snacks. And if the child has any food allergies or special dietary needs, parents can ensure those are met with a self-assembled meal.
“You may save on the money side, as well,” asserts Bailey. Buying lunch-box staples in bulk, purchasing reusable plastic containers, using a refillable water bottle, and making planned-overs (planned leftovers) all can help keep costs down when you pack.
Still, she adds, “We don’t want to shame the parent who doesn’t have time to pack or whose kid wants to buy. Whether it’s the lunch line or the lunch box, the following 5 categories should be the basis for your meal.”
- A Fruit OR Vegetable“Why not both?” we asked Bailey. “This is one meal of the day, so parents shouldn’t get panicked over it. I’m a big proponent of doing a fruit or vegetable, not making them have to eat both.” More important: Make sure the child packs a type of produce that you know they like and will eat. Some ideas:
- Fresh veggies (baby carrots, snow peas, grape tomatoes, green pepper strips, etc.)
- Fresh fruit (whole or cut up; whichever the child prefers)
- Canned fruit (in water or 100% fruit juice, not syrup)
- Frozen fruit (no sugar added)
- Applesauce (no sugar added)
- 100% fruit spread or preserves
Bonus tips: Low-fat Greek yogurt makes a great dip for fruits or veggies. Mix salsa or a seasoning packet with plain yogurt for veggies, and use vanilla for fruit. Have a salad lover? That makes lunch simple! Start with dark leafy greens and toss in some grilled chicken and shredded cheese. Pack low-fat salad dressing separately and add a whole-grain roll and treat.
- A Whole Grain“There are a lot of non-sandwich-eating kids,” says Bailey. This is often because sandwiches can become soggy or stale by lunchtime. To keep it fresher, Bailey suggests packing ingredient in a separate container or a bento box, including the condiments, and let the child assemble it at school. Some other whole-grain options:
- Whole-grain tortilla, pita, bagel, or bread
- Whole-grain crackers
- Brown or whole-grain rice
- Whole grain pretzels
- Whole grain cereal or granola
- A granola bar (read labels)
- Instant oatmeal (prepared with low-fat milk)
- Popcorn (air-popped plain or low-fat)
Bonus tips: For a fun twist on the usual PB&J, spread all-natural nut butter and 100% fruit spread or preserves on a whole-grain tortilla, roll it, and slice it into wheels. Or make a mini “pizza” by spreading it on whole-wheat Naan bread, then folding it in half and cutting it into slices. (If the school has banned nuts from the lunch room, sub in low-fat cream cheese with the fruit spread.) For kids who like something even more unique, send a rice bowl with brown rice, salsa, black beans, and grilled chicken. Some schools offer microwaves, but your child might not mind eating it cold.
- A Low-Fat Dairy Item
“This gets that calcium and vitamin D source in there,” says Bailey. “It helps round out the protein source of the meal as well.” Even kids who pack a lunch may be able to buy a carton of milk at school. “Even chocolate milk is not the end of the world,” she says. “I’m a fan of 1% or 2%, but let them choose. We actually do need fat, especially kiddos, who are still growing. That fat will help with their satiety level so they’re not starving an hour after lunch.”
- Low-fat yogurt
- A frozen tube of low-fat yogurt
- String cheese
- Fortified soy milk, almond milk, or another milk alternative
- Low-fat cream cheese
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- 1 ounce or 1 slice of low-fat cheese
Bonus tip: Here's one delicious way for kids to get their dairy and fruit servings. Make a smoothie with low-fat Greek yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit. For best results, store an empty thermos in the freezer overnight, then make a smoothie fresh the next morning and pour it into the chilled container. (Make it a double, and you can drink half for breakfast!)
- A Protein Source
“Protein, fat, and fiber are three things that allow for blood sugar stability and promote satiety,” says Bailey. “If kids have mostly carbs in their lunch, they’re going to be hungry again right away.” In kids, she says, hunger often presents itself in two less-than-pleasant ways: crankiness and sleepiness. (You’ve likely heard the term “hangry”—so hungry you’re angry.)With protein, Bailey says people get stuck because they think only of lunch meat. “I’ve got a kiddo that I work with right now who is in grade school and is ecstatic to have lox on a bagel for lunch,” she says. Here, some protein sources to consider:
- Lean or low-fat sandwich meats
- Grilled chicken strips
- Hard-boiled eggs (pre-peeled)
- Nuts, peanut butter, and other nut butters (if allowed by the school)
- Tuna fish
- Sushi (fully cooked, with brown rice)
Bonus tip: Create your own version of the ever-popular assemble-it-yourself cheese-and-cracker combos by packing whole-grain crackers, quartered low-fat lunch meat and cheese slices into a bento box or individual mini containers. For younger kids, use a cookie cutter on the deli items for a fun presentation.
- A Treat“I think the ‘you have to eat this before that’ rule--such as broccoli before brownies--makes kids think of certain foods as bad and others as good,” says Bailey, whose online bio ends with, “Emily’s personal philosophy is to never deprive yourself; everything in moderation.” Thus the treat is an essential part of her lunch box wish-list.“If the treat is in there, they’re less likely to scrap the whole lunch,” she says. This doesn’t necessarily mean a sugary dessert every day, though. “Maybe we have a sweet treat once a week, and other days the treat is a granola bar or pretzels.” The key here is portion size. Keep it to about 200 calories’ worth of food. If kids take in too many non-nutritive calories, those will wind up taking the place of nutrient-dense foods, and kids may have trouble meeting their daily nutrition requirements.
Using Lunch as a Teachable Moment
Another great thing about packing lunches with kids? It offers an “organic” way to show kids how to make mindful food choices—a skill that will help them for the rest of their life. “Involve kids in as much food prep as possible,” advises Bailey. “I can’t tell you how many college kids I’ve worked with who don’t know how to hard-boil an egg.” Enlisting kids’ help in the grocery store and the kitchen also makes it more likely that they’ll eat the resulting lunches.
While tweens and teens will need less guidance (and may have stronger opinions on what they want), younger kids may benefit from being offered two choices from each category. Choosing from “everything” in the pantry and fridge can be overwhelming! Ask them, “Do you want a fruit or a vegetable? Do you want this treat or that one?” This allows kids to feel that they have some control over what goes in the lunch box. It can also help them vary their food choices if they tend to get into food ruts. Even so, she assures us, some kids like the same thing every day, and that’s not a big deal either.
“You have to deal with the reality of life,” she says. It’s just one meal. Do your best, but don’t overthink it or start a food struggle. “If a kiddo wants the same lunch, week in and week out, it makes it easier for you and easier for them,” she says. “The parent can work in a wider variety of foods at breakfast and dinner.”
A Few Faster-Fix Lunch Tips
The name of the game when it comes to low-stress lunch packing? Do as much prep work as possible ahead of time, suggests Bailey. If mornings are hectic, pack lunches the night before. If evenings are also busy, designate an hour each weekend to pre-cut and pre-package servings of lunch staples like grapes, carrot sticks, snack foods, and nuts. Also hard-boil and peel eggs, cook some brown rice, grill chicken breasts or shrimp, and do any other stove-and-oven prep for the week. Here, a few more of Bailey’s secrets:
- Designate one produce drawer for storing pre-packaged lunch staples and after school snacks that require refrigeration.
- Maintain a well-stocked snack basket containing pre-portioned edibles that don’t require refrigeration and can be grabbed after school or before heading to an afterschool activity.
- Store healthier foods at eye level in the fridge and the pantry. Tuck chips and goodies in a cabinet or drawer so you have to make a conscious decision before seeking and eating them.
- Figure out how much your plasticware holds (1/4 cup, ½ cup, etc.) Some may come labeled, but if not you can use a measuring cup and rice or water to determine what fits in each container. If you like, use a permanent marker to jot these sizes on the matching lids.
Most important, says Bailey, is to tell parents, “Do what works for you!” One of the biggest life lessons in lunch-packing is that moderation is key. You might choose to use a refillable water bottle but buy pre-portioned snack bags of trail mix. Or you might divvy up bulk foods yourself, but use pre-grilled chicken. Don’t be judgy with yourself or others for whatever choices you make when moving toward better-for-you eating habits. The key is to find habits you can sustain throughout the school year…and for the rest of your life. That’s truly one of the greatest legacies that a parent can give their kids and that you can give your clients.
- CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2016. September is National Childhood Obesity Month, Accessed Sept 14, 2016. www.cdc.gov.
- ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine). 2016. Childhood Overweight & Obesity. Accessed Sept 14, 2016. www.acsm.org.