We're always trying to learn new ways to help keep our children healthy, strong and prepared to face the day. But between work, carpools, ballet practice and bedtime, preparing meals for lunch that are both kid-friendly and nutritious can be easily put on the back burner. Before you know it, you're left scrambling to assemble lunches for your kids to take to school or for your nanny to serve up at lunchtime. Luckily, we've got some handy, easy midday meal ideas from moms, cookbook authors and nutrition experts, which are not only healthy, but also kid-approved.
A healthy diet has much to do with a kid's proper development and his or her ability to learn. Not only that, childhood nutrition "really sets the stage for healthy eating habits later in life," says Marissa Burke, a Cleveland mother with a masters in human nutrition. "A child's day can be improved just by the food they eat. Nutrients provide energy and immune support as they play and learn all day."
The following lunch suggestions are all simple and require few ingredients. Many also encourage you to add fun and new presentations into old proven bites. They will provide your little ones with the nutrients they'll need to finish out their day.
Daily portions of fruits and vegetables are important and finger food is always fun for kids. "Offer an adult-sized handful of cut vegetables (peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery) with hummus or a little salad dressing with lunch and you'd be amazed how quickly they're eaten!" recommends Burke.
2. Grilled Watermelon
Did you know that you can grill watermelon? If you cut it in rectangles about the size of a deck card, the watermelon can be grilled on one side (leaving the other side remains raw). Then toss them with greens, cheese and mint for a refreshing and easy summer salad plate. See detailed steps for this recipe here.
3. Veggie Wrap
Wrap carrot sticks, cucumbers, tomatoes and your kids' other favorite veggies into a whole wheat tortilla. Pack a side of low-fat dressing so that your children can dip the wrap, making it less dry and lunch more fun.
4. Meat and Cheese Sandwich
Presentation can make a big difference. Consider translating the good ol' ham and cheese sandwich into an interesting plate consisting of rolled up cold cuts, cheese squares, and bread triangles. "Sandwiches [like] turkey and cheese with lettuce (or any lunch meat) are great options for carbohydrate and protein combinations," adds Burke. But be picky with lunch meats, "as they contain an enormous amount of sodium and children can be affected by excess salt in their diets."
5. Caprese Sandwich
If your child isn't afraid to try new things, put together a colorful caprese lunch, with slices of mozzarella cheese and tomatoes and a basil leaf. Serve it on wheat bread for added energy because, says Burke, "whole grains are filling for a longer time period than processed white bread."
6. Barbecue Chicken Sandwich
Got leftover chicken? Mix it with barbecue sauce and fix it with a piece of lettuce inside a loaf of wheat bread to create a delicious barbecue chicken sandwich.
7. Egg Salad Sandwich
Your old recipe for egg salad (with low-fat mayonnaise) can make a great sandwich for kids to take to school. Many parents worry about the possibility of spoilage with mayo-based lunches. But as James Cooper, the author of Cooking for Graduate Students, says, "If you use commercial mayonnaise they are pretty safe...The acid in the mayo actually will retard spoilage."
A healthy quesadilla can be made with a whole grain flour tortilla, reduced fat cheese, cooked chicken breast meat and a light salsa. Pack the salsa in a separate container so your child can dip the quesadilla.
9. Tuna Sandwich
Make a tuna salad with low-fat mayo and diced celery, carrots and lemon juice. Wrap it in a whole grain tortilla for a non-boring version of a tuna sandwich and a great way to sneak a lot of veggies into your little one's lunch. Make it more exciting by slicing the sandwiches up into fun shapes with cookie cutters.
10. Strawberry and Cream Cheese Sandwich
Slice some strawberries and serve them with low-fat cream cheese in a sandwich.
11. PB&J with a Twist
Peanut butter has healthy fats, packs tons of protein and "is a perfectly good lunch choice," says Cooper. For a unique take on the classic, take a leftover grilled turkey burger and place it on a whole wheat bun with peanut butter and cranberry jam. If your little one loves Thanksgiving, she's sure to love this sandwich.
Always choose whole wheat pastas when possible -- they're healthier than white pastas and taste just as good. Your child won't know the difference once the pasta is mixed in with sauce or veggies, and using whole grains instead of the refined flour type on a regular basis has been linked to lower blood pressure and reduced risks of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. So prepare a much healthier spaghetti by using whole wheat noodles and grating carrots and zucchini into the tomato sauce. For a meat sauce, use ground turkey instead of beef.
13. Primavera Salad
Make a fun pasta salad with whole wheat bowtie pasta mixed with a variety of vegetables, like broccoli, carrots and spinach. Make sure to include more veggies than pasta, then mix it up with parmesan cheese and a light dressing. A container filled with pasta and a second one with fruit will make for a delicious and healthy lunch to take to school.
14. Pasta and Chicken Sausage
Cut cooked chicken sausage in bite sizes, mix it with drained canned white beans, a bit of spinach and a penne pasta for a delicious dish full of protein and iron.
And don't forget about dessert! "No lunch is complete without something sweet or salty," says Burke. "There's no reason to sacrifice all day. Eating high calorie foods earlier in the day rather than after dinner is better, because you have a higher chance of using those calories, even for kids." So along with that healthy sandwich, serve or pack some kid-sized sweets, like two cookies or a small baggie of chips. It will be the perfect end to a filling and healthy lunch.
Need more suggestions? Here are seven easy -- and healthy -- ideas for school lunches.
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Dena Burroughs is a freelance writer living in Azusa, California. She is a California State University graduate, with specialties in creative writing and communications. Her work can be found here.