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School lunch ideas

Of course, lunch is no different from any other meal; you want your kids to eat well, to make their best possible choices from an array of healthy options. If you’re packing a lunch for them from home every day you want to know that they’re eating what you send (no trading that apple for Cheetos!).

My four kids have run the gamut from very adventurous to ridiculously picky eaters, so I adjust my expectations based on what’s reasonable for that child. You’ll do the same of course because no one knows your child better than you. Also, the nutritional and caloric needs of a high-schooler and a kindergartner are quite different. Do they have sports immediately after school? Is there a birthday or some other special party in class that day? Every day we weigh all of these decisions, but the basic school lunch is made up of a few fundamental elements:

  1. Drink – Some kids buy milk at school, mine bring a drink from home. That drink used to be a juice box-type of drink until I realized that they like bottled water just as much. Hydration is important but just like all calories, beverage calories count. This is an easy place to get rid of unwanted sugar in your child’s diet.
  2. Sandwich – Does it get any more basic than a protein source between two pieces of bread? Rather than worry about getting your child to eat whole wheat bread – great if they like it, but don’t insist if they hate it – find a low-calorie bread or try our favorite: a small hamburger bun.
  3. Fruit or vegetable – Whole fruit can be daunting to a child, so I always cut up whatever I’m sending. Apple slices are much easier to eat than a whole apple. Orange wedges, snap peas, baby carrots, broccoli florets (not my kids, but maybe yours!) are also great easy-to-eat fruit and veggie choices.
  4. Crackers or chips – Totally optional and based on whether the child has a morning snack time or maybe an activity after school that will keep him away from home until nearly dinnertime. Also, frankly this is based on whether the child has a weight issue or not. If yes, they’re not on the menu. And hopefully it goes without saying, these are healthy, lower fat options, not Fritos.
  5. Dessert – Also used sparingly. I like the Fiber One 90-Calorie bars that come in a variety of dessert-like flavors (brownie, lemon). A sweet treat can be an occasional surprise in a lunchbox (maybe Fridays?) or a regular element; it may depend again on activity level, age and whether or not the child is trying to lose weight.

As kids get older and hopefully more adventurous we have included “Caesar Salad Friday” or even the occasional sandwich wrap in our repertoire. Any chance you get to engage kids in the decision-making about what goes in that bag will get you better results in terms of their actually eating what’s in there. Getting them to participate and problem-solve with you will yield better results than some pointless power struggle.

After all, you’re not there and if you fill that lunchbox with foods they don’t like you may just find an empty Chips Ahoy wrapper in there that subbed in for the applesauce you sent. Most importantly, work with your child to make sure that lunch is something they look forward to every day and that it will fuel them for a busy and productive afternoon.

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