August 26, 2014
Think outside the (lunch) box: Tips for packing nutritious lunches your kids will LOVE!
While many parents prefer packing their child’s lunches, they are often surprised to hear that studies show the majority of meals brought from home actually fall short on nutrition. In fact, a recent study conducted by Tufts University demonstrated that over 60% of lunches brought from home wouldn’t meet even 3 out of 5 nutritional standards for the National School Lunch program. Most home packed lunches exceeded maximums for sugar, salt and fat content, and provided too little protein, fruits, and vegetables. In short, the home packed lunches left much to be desired nutritionally. But don’t worry, packing your child’s lunchbox with healthy fare doesn’t mean it’s destined for the garbage can! There are plenty of nourishing foods that will fuel your child for fun at recess (and keep them from falling asleep on their desk during History class) that they will actually want to eat. Here are some easy ways to make sure your child’s lunches receive straight “A”s for both fun and nutrition.
Make sure your sandwiches are healthy
Sandwiches are the most common brown-bag star, and for good reason: they’re quick to make, generally inexpensive, and easy to transport. However, not all sandwiches deserve a gold star for nutrition. Using white bread? Swap it for a Dietitian’s Choice whole grain bread, or give our bakery’s 7 grain artisan bread a try. Are your kids PB and J lovers? Make sure to use a peanut butter without hydrogenated oil or lots of added sugar (look for Dietitians Choice varieties), and use a lower sugar jam. We have been loving local Butcher’s Bunches jams around my house (available on our Cheese Islands), as well as Smucker’s Lower Sugar Fruit Preserves. Is your child more of a meat and cheese lover? Use the opportunity to add some veggies on the sandwich, and be sure to use lower sodium, nitrite/nitrate free lunch meat, such as Boar’s Head Ovengold Turkey or Cap Off London Broil Roast Beef.
- Extra credit: Provide the bread and toppings, and allow your kiddo to put the sandwich together themselves. It saves you time, and your child will appreciate getting to choose what goes on his/her sandwich
Forget the snack foods (but remember the fun!)
Pudding cups. Cookies. Chips. Fruit snacks. These foods, while OK in moderation, provide lots of calories without a lot of nutrients, and shouldn’t be lunchbox staples. Instead of pudding cups, try lower sugar yogurts, and replace cookies with whole grain crackers. (Annie’s Naturals makes some yummy, kid friendly crackers that are mostly whole grain.) Skip the chips and use flavored popcorn for a fun whole grain treat. And though fruit snacks have “fruit” in the name, they are not a replacement for real, whole fruits. Swap fruit gummies for fruit leather or dried fruit for a sweet snack.
- Note: Lunches served at school generally don’t have much wiggle room when it comes to sugar and calorie content, so they don’t often provide dessert foods with meals.
We use this idea all the time for adults, but how about for kids? If you’re making nutritious dinners, they can absolutely be packed in a reusable container with an ice pack and enjoyed for lunch.
Provide healthy dips for vegetables or fruit
Kids LOVE dips, so use this to your advantage to help encourage them to eat their fruits and vegetables. I often recommend making your own quick batch of healthier ranch dressing (a common kid favorite!) by mixing a packet of dried ranch dressing mix (in the salad dressing aisle) with a 16oz container of nonfat or low fat plain Greek yogurt. Our produce departments are also making some wonderful fresh hummus that make an excellent veggie dip with an extra punch of protein and fiber.
For fruit, try putting a vanilla flavored yogurt into their lunch as a dip, or mix the yogurt with some nut butter for a fun flavored fruit dip that is low in added sugar, and higher in protein and bone building calcium.
Rethink your drink: provide water or milk, NOT soda or fruit drinks
Many lunches brought from home were low in protein, and too high in sugar. Sugar sweetened beverages like soda, fruit drinks, or energy drinks don’t provide many nutrients, and shouldn’t be a lunchbox staple. By giving your child milk, you help them meet their protein requirements, as well as provide an essential source of calcium and vitamin D. Low fat flavored milk is OK, too. You can find the perfect lunch-sized milks in our healthy checkout cooler! Just be sure that you are also putting an ice-pack in your child’s insulated lunch box to keep milk at a safe temperature until lunchtime. Water is also a good choice for hydration, and doesn’t provide any sugar or calories.
Don’t forget the protein!
Though most Americans don’t have a problem meeting their daily protein needs, many home-packed lunches are low in protein, making the lunches less likely to hold your child over until snack or dinner time. A few easy, kid friendly protein options:
- Low fat dairy products (cheese, milk, yogurt)
- Hardboiled eggs
- Cooked lean meats or fish
- Low sodium deli meats
- Nuts and seeds or nut butters
- Soy products like tofu, edamame or soy nuts
What are your favorite healthy lunch box staples?
Want more information on how to make a healthy and delicious lunch? Join our Harmons dietitians in September for our Healthy Brown Bag Lunch workshops! Check out our schedule HERE to find the date and location most convenient for you.