Parents have their work cut out for them when it comes to packing healthy and kid-approved lunches. The bustle of morning chaos doesn’t lend itself to carefully crafted morsels. The lack of time and inspiration means many parents get stuck in the same lunch box ruts. Here are six common missteps to a well-composed packed lunch, plus solutions and recipes to up your lunch game.
Not Having a Plan
The AM time crunch gets even more pressing when you’re asking repeatedly “What do you want for lunch….do you want this or this?…or this?” The desperation is palpable.
Solution: Instead of leaving the lunch plan to the crack of dawn, sit down on Sunday evening and map out what to make for the week ahead. This takes only a few minutes and will pay off on busy mornings. If that doesn't work for you, aim to pack lunches the night before, rather than trying to do it while serving breakfast, getting kids dressed, finding missing homework, and so on.
Focusing on One Food Group
You pack a milk box, yogurt tube, and cheese stick because you know your kid likes all three. But overloading one food group (in this case, dairy) means you are probably neglecting other healthy options.
Solution: Aim for balance each day. Including one serving of dairy along with other whole foods gives you more chances to introduce a wider variety of options.
Temperature (Out of) Control
You don’t want to eat cold mac and cheese or a hot cup of pineapple, and neither does your child. Take a few simple steps to keep hot foods hot and cold foods nice and chilly. Not only is temperature control important for the way food tastes, but it also helps keep food safe from bacterial contamination.
Solution: Invest in a good quality Thermos to tuck into lunch boxes, or try an all-in-one like the Omie Box. To keep hot food warm until lunchtime, preheat your container. Fill a Thermos with hot water and let stand for 10 minutes. Then drain and pack your hot food.
Too Many Carbs
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, nutrition expert and author of "The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook," points out another truth about families and their lunch desires. “Kids tend to love carbs, and parents want to put what their kids will eat in the box....an over-carbed lunch box is a cream cheese sandwich on raisin bread with tortilla chips with guac for dipping.”
Solution: For dipping, substitute cut up veggies like carrots and red peppers for tortilla chips or pretzels.
Too Much Food
“Packing too much food is definitely a lunch fail that a lot of parents may not think about,” says registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition. “Large portions of food can be overwhelming to kids, especially with short lunch periods and the distractions of noise and friends in the cafeteria. As a result, they may not end up eating very much, and that is frustrating for parents.”
Solution: Less is more. “When I started packing less food, my kids started coming home with empty lunch boxes," says Kuzemchak. "It seems counterintuitive, but the less I packed, the more they ate."
Leaving Your Kids Out of the Loop
Kids can become less interested in meals when they are disconnected from the process. If lunch seems like a painful chore to you, your children will gladly subscribe to that thought process as well.
Solution: Ask kids to use their imaginations and even get their hands dirty. Take some time on a day off to select and try easy recipes. Have them help prep the ingredients, and then taste together. File the most popular recipes in your stockpile of family favorites.
Lunch Box Recipes
Once kids have helped prepare and taste these healthy options, they will look forward to having them for lunch at school.
Tuna Pasta Salad
- 1 (5 oz) can chunk light tuna in water, drained
- 1 (5 oz) can solid white albacore tuna in water, drained
- ½ cup chopped celery
- 1 small apple, diced
- Juice of ½ a lemon
- ¼ cup light mayonnaise
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 cups cooked whole grain pasta, cooled
In a large bowl combine both types of tuna, chopped celery, apple, lemon juice, and mayo; season with salt and mix well to combine. Toss tuna salad with cooked pasta. Enjoy immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Microwave Tomato Soup
- 1 cup prepared marinara sauce
- 2 cups low sodium chicken stock (or low sodium vegetable broth)
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- Optional toppings: whole grain crackers, croutons, crushed tortilla chips, shredded cheese, fresh herbs
Combine marinara sauce and chicken stock in a large microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the top to allow the steam to escape. Place in the microwave and cook on high heat for 3 minutes. Carefully stir and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Remove from microwave and stir in heavy cream. Serve with desired toppings.
Strawberry Kiwi Fruit Leather
(Makes 12 Pieces)
- 1½ cups finely chopped fresh strawberries
- ½ cup chopped kiwi (about 2 kiwi fruit)
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons honey
Preheat oven to 170 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat and set aside. Place strawberries, kiwi, sugar, and honey in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes. Then puree using an immersion blender or food processor. Continue to cook over medium-high heat for an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until the mixture is thick and syrupy; the mixture should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Pour the hot fruit mixture onto the prepared baking sheet and spread evenly into approximately an 8 × 12 inch rectangle. Place in the oven and bake for 3 hours. After 3 hours have passed, turn off the oven and allow to sit in the oven overnight. Once completely set, cut into strips with a sharp knife or pizza cutter; roll up in a clean piece of parchment paper. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.