Pack a punch of nutrition with these health-savvy lunches that stand up to lunch-time trading.
You glance at the clock only to see that it's 20 minutes until the kiddos are officially late for school. The lunch boxes are bare, and your 5-year-old is begging for one of those prepackaged lunches from the processed sandwich meat department. What now? Try some of these healthy school lunch ideas!
- Cute Compartments
Katie Serbinski, a registered dietitian and creator of Mom to Mom Nutrition, notes that prepackaged lunches are appealing because of the compartments and the ability for kids to feel like they're "building" their own meals. As a healthy alternative, she suggests, "Consider purchasing your own compartmentalized lunch containers." Fill them with a homemade, healthier version of the not-so-nutritious store variety. Serbinski recommends adding "whole grain crackers, cheese and lunch meat slices" as an easy build-able school lunch your kid will love.
- Better Beans
Your child needs protein -- about 19 grams per day if she's between 4 and 8 years, and 34 grams per day between the ages of 9 and 13, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If she's shunning meat, or only wants the fatty fast-food variety, try swapping in a bean spread. Swipe a spoonful of hummus in a whole-wheat pita and add avocado slices, suggests Serbinski. If spices are a struggle for her delicate palette, make your own spread using pureed chickpeas, white beans and olive oil.
- Grilled Chicken Switch-a-Roo
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that a grilled chicken sandwich is a healthy substitute for high-fat burgers. Try a piece of grilled chicken breast in a sandwich roll, and top with low-fat mozzarella cheese and pesto. If you have a more adventurous eater, add a smattering of salsa, marinate the chicken in low-sodium soy sauce or add stir-fried veggies on top.
- PB&J Swap
If nuts are out (due to your child's allergies or a nut-free policy at her school), Serbinski suggests avocado and tomato slices. The avocado mimics the smooth creaminess of peanut butter, and the tomato slice adds another flavor to keep it company! If your little one can't let go of her beloved PB&Js, swap in an alternative nut-free butter. As a registered dietitian, founder of the blog Mom's Kitchen Handbook and author of the cookbook "Best Lunch Box Ever," Katie Sullivan Morford suggests, "Sunflower butter is a great option since it isn't usually included in the 'no nut' school policies, and can be used as a sandwich spread just like peanut butter."
- Pack Snacks
"Kids work hard in school, and certainly deserve a sweet or salty snack every now and then," says Serbinski. While you don't want to load up lunch with chips and cookies, she says that you can create a healthy savory-sweet lunchtime snack. Make your own trail mix with "plain, unsalted popcorn, dried fruit and dark chocolate chips."
- Decent Dessert
Morford notes that kids' meals should be about balance. "If lunch is full of nourishing foods, there is room for occasional goodies. Keep the sweets on the small side and relatively wholesome, such as a homemade cookie or a tablespoon of dark chocolate chips." The U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests satisfying sweet cravings with fresh fruit and yogurt. Prep a parfait in a lidded container by layering low-fat vanilla yogurt and berries, adding in the chocolate chips that Morford suggests.
- Sushi, Hold the Fish
Raw fish isn't exactly a kid-friendly lunch option. Get creative and make a no-fish sushi that's healthy and fun to eat! Start with a whole wheat tortilla instead of a seaweed wrap. Smooth on a layer of brown rice. Place sliced veggies -- try carrots, zucchini, cucumbers or other long, thin choices -- in the center before rolling tightly. Trim the outer edges of the tortilla, slice into coins and wrap the rolls to go. Add a soy, salsa or yogurt-based dipping sauce if your kid is an adventurous eater.
For even more healthy school lunch ideas, check out these 14 lunch ideas for kids.
Erica Loop is a mom, freelance parenting writer and educator with an MS in child development. When she's not busy teaching, she's creating kids' activities for her blog Mini Monets and Mommies.