Healthy & Fun Lunch Ideas for Kids

Although a packed lunch can be a healthy alternative to cafeteria food, making sure all those required vitamins and minerals also squeeze into that lunch box can be a challenge. Just as the hot lunch counter may be laden with unhealthy foods, so may a poorly packed lunch. Whether your child wants to pack lunch every day or just on "mystery meat Mondays," there are a few things to consider when he or she forgoes the cafeteria fare.

Make It Nutritious

To ensure that your child has ample fuel to power through those long classes, make sure they are eating a wide variety of foods from the major food groups. Use the "Plate" method (which replaced the Food Guide Pyramid in 2011) as a guide to make sure you're covering all the bases. Here are some additional tips on making lunchtime nutritious:
  • Choose whole-wheat bread instead of white. Whole grains are loaded with nutrients and fiber, while their refined counterparts are lacking. To make sure your bread is whole wheat, check the label. The first ingredient should be whole wheat, not just wheat flour. If your child is used to the refined version, try switching to a hybrid variety first, which contains some whole grains mixed with refined flour.
  • Don't skip fruits and vegetables. Many kids are partial to fruits, but vegetables are important, too. Include peanut butter or ranch dressing as a dip for carrots, celery or cherry tomatoes. Add finely minced kale and zucchini to soups or stews, where it may sneak past your detective. For fruit, fresh is best. If you must use canned (it may be time-saving and cheaper), make sure it is preserved in fruit juice, not syrup.
  • Include protein for sustained energy. Besides lean meats, good protein sources include nuts, cheese and beans. Some easy-to-pack examples include cheese cubes, almond butter (like peanut butter, but made with almonds instead), trail mix, hummus and mock-meat deli slices (found in the natural foods section of your local grocery).
  • Add calcium. Include milk money or pack calcium-enriched orange juice, soymilk or rice milk.
  • Avoid soda and other sweetened drinks. Water and 100 percent fruit juices are better choices.

Make it Delicious

Even if you did pack a cottage-cheese-stuffed bell pepper and a bran muffin, that doesn't mean it made its way to your child's tummy. This lunch might please your palate, but younger taste buds aren't generally so adventurous. And if they don't like it, they probably won't eat it—especially if you're not around. The best way to ensure that lunch ends up where it should is to recruit some help when packing it. Research shows kids enjoy food more if they've helped in its preparation. Besides letting them chop and bag, there are many ways to get them involved:
  • Let your child choose what to pack. If you're afraid to let her choose what goes in the box for fear it will consist entirely of junk food, let her choose between a few different approved items.
  • Create a menu. Work with your child to come up with a list of foods he'd be happy to see in his lunchbox. Categorize them into food groups and let your child pick an item from each group to pack. This way, they have guidelines AND a choice. Keep a running list of ideas (yours and your child's), so you can liven up the menu periodically.
  • Don't overlook last night's dinner. Did your child really love the veggie pizza you had for dinner last night? Leftovers save time and make a great lunch.
  • Respect individual tastes. If you're packing for multiple children, keep in mind that what works for one may not work for another.
  • Allow periodic splurges. If you've got a die-hard chocoholic on your hands, allow for the occasional treat, as long as he or she is eating healthy most of the time.
  • Take the work out of lunch. Some schools give kids as little as 20 minutes to eat lunch, so peel, chop, seed and spread in advance. They'll be more likely to eat that juicy orange if it's already peeled.
  • Only pack foods that have passed the test. If they've never tried nori rolls, don't pack them until they gain approval.
  • Discuss the other leftovers. If you pack the carrot sticks and your child tosses them, no one benefits. Make sure that your child is actually eating their entire lunch—if not, then don't pack so much. Ask her to bring home the leftovers so you can modify portion sizes next time.

Make it Safe

No matter how nutritious and delicious your child's lunch may be, it could cause her harm if it is not prepared and stored according to food safety guidelines. To ensure that your child's egg salad sandwich is Staphylococcus-free, follow these guidelines:
  • Always wash your hands (and your child’s hands, if he’s helping) prior to handling food.
  • Make sure all preparation surfaces are clean to avoid cross-contamination.
  • If you are cooking food that will be eaten cold, allow enough time to chill it thoroughly prior to packing. 
  • If you are packing your child’s lunch in a reusable bag or box, make sure it has been washed in warm, soapy water after each use.  
  • Keep perishable food out of the "danger zone." Harmful bacteria multiply quickly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. 
  • To keep cold foods cold, refrigerate lunches until you’re ready to walk out the door, and include an ice pack with perishable items. 
  • To keep hot foods hot, fill an insulated thermos with boiling water and let stand five minutes. While you are waiting, bring the food to a boil, empty the thermos and then pour in the hot food. Keep it closed until lunchtime to keep it safe.
  • Some foods that don’t require an ice pack include fruits, vegetables, trail mix, breads, hard cheeses, canned foods (as long as they are consumed immediately upon opening), nut butters, jelly, mustard and pickles. 
Although packing lunches may take a little more time than handing your kids a fistful of cash as they dart out the front door, it is also an opportunity to teach nutrition and planning skills, and to connect with your kids. Research shows that kids who eat healthy throughout childhood are more likely to be healthy adults, and packing a healthy lunch is yet another way to promote this behavior.