6 Real School Lunches Nutritionists Actually Pack for Their Kids (and No, They’re Not Instagram-Perfect)
With schools across the country starting up again this fall, parents are again having to consider their answer to the question “what’s for lunch?” — even more so this year than in the last two. During the Covid-19 pandemic, a temporary free school lunch program gave many caregivers a much-needed break from packing kids’ lunches for school each day. But now that the government provision has expired, it’s back to the lunch-making grind for many.
If your lunch-making skills are feeling a little rusty, you’re not alone. To get the creative juices flowing, we spoke to registered dietitian moms about the real-life meals they regularly pack in their kids’ lunch boxes. Here are six nutritious, kid-friendly, and delightfully easy options they suggest.
1. DIY Greek Yogurt Parfaits
“As much as I would like to make Pinterest-worthy lunchbox meals for my daughter, I simply don’t have the time to do this and accomplish all of my other commitments,” says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, founder of Nutrition Now Counseling. (Truer mom words were never spoken.)
When schedules are hectic, Manaker suggests a simple-yet-fun school lunch. “At least once a week, my daughter gets a Greek yogurt, some low-sugar granola, fresh berries, and chocolate chips. I send all of the ingredients with an empty plastic cup and a spoon. At lunchtime, she makes herself a parfait that she’s both excited to eat and that nourishes her body for the rest of the day.”
2. Mediterranean Lentil Pasta Salad
This one takes a little more work, but is ultimately a time saver: a healthy dinner like Mediterranean lentil pasta salad can also be a great fit for your child’s lunch box the next day. One possibility, says Elysia Cartlidge, MAN, RD, founder of Haute and Healthy Living, is a Mediterranean lentil pasta salad.
“Along with the lentils and pasta, I add in cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, and sliced olives,” says Cartlidge. “Sometimes I make my own dressing and other times I’ll use a store-bought Mediterranean dressing, depending on how much time I have.”
We recommend using chickpea pasta, which is surprisingly nutritious, and steaming lentils du puy, which retain their shape better than regular brown lentils. For convenience options, Trader Joe’s sells packs of steamed lentils in the refrigerated section near the salad things, and you can also buy them canned.
“It stays fresh until lunch, and my kids always devour it,” Cartlidge says, noting that it also makes for easy clean-up since the whole dish is prepared in one bowl. For extra sweetness and bonus nutrients, she recommends adding a side of fresh fruit, like sliced mango or a small container of strawberries.
3. Sunflower Butter Sandwich
With childhood food allergies on the rise, the once-standard PBJ has fallen out of fashion—or is outright prohibited at some schools. But that doesn’t mean its sweet-and-savory flavor combination is out of reach.
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a mom of three, offers an alternative. “One of the lunches that I often pack for my kids is a sunflower butter sandwich with grapes. The allergen-friendly sandwich is easy because I know it will be safe for them to take, whether they’re eating at summer camp, school, or at their after-school program.”
Besides its classic taste, this option has nutritional advantages, too. “The grapes provide energy and hydration to help kids power through their day. My kids love their refreshing juiciness and I love that I can just rinse and pack them — no prep necessary!”
4. DIY Bento Boxes
90s kids, now grown-ups themselves, know the allure of the almighty Lunchable, so it’s no surprise dietitians recommend a more nutritious, homemade version of the sought-after school lunch of years gone by.
“My approach to school lunches is to empower my kiddos to make it themselves (with a little support from mama if needed),” says Dani Lebovitz, MS, RDN, mom of three and founder of Kid Food Explorers. “I have my five-year-old follow a kid-centric lunchbox building method.” Lebovitz’s kids are encouraged to choose their own mix of ready-to-go ingredients from the fridge and pantry, which she says teaches them the life skill of building their own healthy meals based on their individual preferences.
Of course, it’s a good idea to offer some structure and rules. For instance, you could encourage kids to choose a vegetable from the crisper drawer (carrot sticks or sugar snap peas), a fruit (apple slices or blueberries), a main (tuna salad or chickpea salad), and something extra if needed (think energy balls, yogurt, or granola bars).
5. Turkey and Cheese Sandwich (with Some Fun Extras)
It might not win any awards for uniqueness, but there’s nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned turkey and cheese sandwich in your child’s lunchbox. Amanda Blechman, RD, CDN, Director of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, says turkey and cheese on whole wheat is a favorite for her daughter. Its combination of protein and fiber will keep your kid full, and it’s a helpful starter to build a complete lunch around.
In the rest of her daughter’s lunchbox, Blechman gets creative. “I fill in other foods that provide a variety of flavors and textures, which is more satisfying for your tastebuds,” she says. This might look like Hippeas organic chickpea puffs, dehydrated watermelon slices, or a container of raspberries with a few chocolate chips tossed in for good measure. “Horizon Organic Growing Years pouches are also a favorite for my four-and-a-half-year-old, so they’re a pretty common staple in her lunchboxes,” she says. “I love that they’re developed with pediatricians and offer nutrients important for growing little bodies, like calcium, vitamin D, DHA, choline, and prebiotic fiber.”
6. A Whole-Grain Quesadilla
“When it comes to lunch outside of the house, I look for a few key things: is it accessible, is it palatable, and is it satisfying?” says Yaffi Lvova, RDN, mom of three and founder of Baby Bloom Nutrition. A quick lunch that checks all the boxes: a quesadilla made with a whole grain tortilla, accompanied by fruits and vegetables like jicama sticks and orange slices. For more protein, add meat or beans to the quesadilla, and for added vegetable and fiber, toss in some wilted baby spinach leaves and sliced bell peppers.
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