Brown bag lunch ideas your kids will actually eat

September 28, 2015 | by Toni Havala, MS, RD, LDN

The nutritional value of school lunches has improved through the years. Unfortunately, the healthy items are often offered alongside cafeteria staples that kids prefer, like pizza, cheeseburgers, and fries. How do you make sure your kids are getting a midday meal that gives them enough healthy nourishment and brainpower to make it through the afternoon?

Packing your kids’ lunches ensures they bring healthy food and it allows you to involve them in meal planning and prep. If your children help plan the meal, choosing things they like to eat, they’re more likely to finish the whole lunch. Kids should consume most of their daily calories at breakfast and lunch.

One lunchroom goal: avoid empty calories from foods like white bread, fatty meats, fried chips, sweetened beverages, cookies and candy. And don’t be fooled by high-sugar foods disguised as healthy options such as granola bars, juice boxes and yogurts with toppings like sprinkles.

When planning a healthy lunch, try to include a balance of whole grains, fruits or vegetables, and protein like lean meats (turkey, chicken or ham) or beans. To round out a healthy lunch, add a side of unsweetened applesauce, baby carrots or low-fat pudding. Diced fruit is another good option; kids often toss whole fruit, but are more likely to eat fruit salad. A water bottle or low-fat milk are great drink choices.

During food prep, talk about how eating a variety of foods will give them energy for growing, getting good grades and performing their best at sports and all the other things they want to do. It also will help them stay healthy.

Meal planning can be tough for parents after a busy day, so here are five days of nutritious, inexpensive lunch ideas. For a beverage, include milk or water instead of soda or juice drinks.

1. Mini-pizza Monday: Top a whole-wheat English muffin with pizza sauce, leftover veggies and shredded mozzarella cheese. Bake just until the cheese melts.

2. Taco Tuesday: Fill a whole-wheat tortilla with refried beans or leftover chicken, shredded cheese, salsa and lettuce.

3. Soup-er Wednesday: Fill a thermos with vegetable soup. Include a hardboiled egg, cheese and whole wheat crackers

4. Parfait Thursday: Layer vanilla or fruit-flavored Greek yogurt, berries and low-fat granola in a thermos. Serve with whole-grain pita chips and hummus.

5. "Stick It Out, It's Almost the Weekend" Friday: Skewer rolled-up turkey slices, cherry tomatoes, cheese cubes and grapes to make a kabob. Serve with whole-grain crackers.

Toni Havala is an outpatient dietitian at Edward Hospital.

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