This year, my oldest son started kindergarten. And, because the school menu promised meals with lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, I decided not to pack a lunch for him. I figured Kyle could get his own tray, order lunch and eat like a “big boy.”
The first week, I popped in at lunchtime to surprise him. He was surprised, and unfortunately so was I. Everything on his plate was brown: buttery French toast, hash browns and sausage. The other option that day? Deep-fried chicken nuggets and alphabet-shaped fried potatoes. The letters were cute, but the saturated fat and highly processed poultry meat were appalling.
I scoured every kid’s tray and noted no shortage of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, salt and sugar. Where were the vegetables? Fried potatoes and canned corn. The fruit? Canned peaches and popsicles. How about high-quality, lean protein? Fried chicken and burgers cooked in who knows what. The meals were almost entirely devoid of the fiber, lean protein, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and healthy fats that our growing children need.
It’s not just Kyle’s school. Nationwide, 75 percent of school lunches don’t even meet the USDA’s own lackluster nutritional guidelines. This comes at a time when we truly need to watch what we feed our kids: More than 32 percent of them are overweight, more than 16 percent are obese, and a growing number have type 2 diabetes.
I know that parents in many communities are actively trying to change their schools’ menus and that many schools are working toward healthier goals. I also know that this sort of change can take a long time. So after my cafeteria wake-up call, I started packing Kyle’s lunches.
Fortunately, packing a healthy, balanced bag lunch doesn’t take much time at all. Even the busiest parents should be able to prepare the three lunches presented here (lunches that even picky eaters will devour).
For me, putting all the lunch elements together the night before makes school mornings less hectic. One more tip: Include your children in lunch decisions. What good is a bag lunch your kid would trade for a cupcake? Ask what he or she likes to eat for lunch, and work together to create meals that satisfy (and that won’t go uneaten!).
Lunch No. 1—Wrap
A kid-friendly, highly portable meal that keeps a growing body going. This wrap boasts lean turkey, Swiss cheese, sweet and tangy honey mustard, and vitamin C–packed baby spinach leaves. Ham-lovers can substitute lean ham (preferably reduced-sodium and nitrate-free). Baby carrots dish up beta-carotene and fiber, and the grapes add fiber and vitamin C, as well. Read labels and buy granola bars made with whole grains (preferably including oats) that are low in sugar, free of trans fats, and rich in fiber and protein.
- Main: Turkey Wrap — Brush a small soft flour tortilla (preferably whole grain) with 1 to 2 teaspoons honey mustard; top with 1 to 2 ounces thinly sliced turkey breast, 1 to 2 ounces sliced Swiss cheese and five to six baby spinach leaves; roll up tightly. As an option, instead of spinach, try arugula, field greens, watercress or radicchio leaves, or thinly sliced red bell peppers or cucumbers.
- Side: 5 to 10 baby carrots
- Snack: Red grapes (1⁄2 cup)
- Treat: Whole-grain granola bar
(For those with wheat or gluten intolerances, seek out gluten-free tortillas. For those with nut sensitivities, read labels and make sure the granola bar contains no nuts and is not manufactured in a plant that uses nuts — or, alternatively, choose an all-fruit roll-up.)
Lunch No. 2—Soup and Sandwich
The perfect soup-and-sandwich combination! What’s better than a cheese sandwich dunked in tomato soup? You can also grill the sandwich in a skillet before popping it in the lunch bag. And you can serve the tomatoes on the side to prevent the bread from getting soggy. The sandwich dishes up calcium, vitamin D and protein from the cheese, and fiber from the bread. The soup is rich in antioxidants (lycopene and vitamin C), and calcium and vitamin D when made with milk. Home-popped popcorn dishes up fiber. Adding banana slices to yogurt creates a pudding-like consistency without the added sugar found in prepared pudding.
- Main: Mozzarella Sandwich — Top one slice of whole-wheat bread with 2 ounces of sliced mozzarella cheese and some thin-sliced tomato and cucumber; top with second slice of bread. For added flavor, spread 1 to 2 teaspoons prepared basil pesto on bread before topping with cheese.
- Side: 1 cup prepared organic tomato soup
- Snack: 1 cup home-popped popcorn
- Treat: 1⁄2 cup full-fat plain yogurt mixed with 1⁄2 sliced banana
(For those with dairy sensitivities, substitute 1 to 2 tablespoons prepared hummus for the mozzarella cheese in the sandwich, and substitute soy yogurt for the regular yogurt in the treat. For those with wheat or gluten intolerances, seek out gluten-free crackers.)
Lunch No. 3—Leftovers
Don’t waste that extra chicken! In fact, toss a few extra chicken breasts in the roasting pan or on the grill so you can make a delicious chicken salad with the leftovers. Chicken is low in fat and rich in high-quality protein. You can also serve the chicken salad in a Bibb lettuce leaf or in a whole-grain pita pocket. Most kids love dried fruit, so consider dried apricots or dried mango slices as an alternative to raisins. They’re both rich in beta-carotene and fiber. Baked tortilla chips contain fiber, and salsa is rich in vitamin C. Also, embrace flexibility — feel free to send your child to school with stir-fry, lasagna or any other leftovers you have hanging around in the fridge.
- Main: Leftover-Chicken Salad — Cube some grilled or roasted chicken breast (making 1⁄2 cup cubed chicken) and toss with 2 tablespoons chopped celery, 1 tablespoon shredded carrot, some mixed greens, 1 tablespoon mayo, and a little Dijon or yellow mustard.
- Side: Dried apricots or dried mango slices (1⁄4 cup total)
- Snack: Baked tortilla chips (1 ounce) with 1⁄4 cup prepared salsa
- Treat: Six whole-grain, gluten-free ginger snaps
(For those with egg sensitivities, substitute soy mayonnaise or sour cream for the regular mayonnaise.)
Photography: John Mowers/Unleashed Productions
Food Styling: Betsy Nelson
While you’re making over your children’s school lunches, why not revamp the way you pack them as well? Instead of using a slew of disposable plastic bags and containers, try using wax paper, aluminum foil or cloth bags for sandwiches and snacks; nonleaching thermal containers for leftovers and soups; and lined metal bottles for beverages.
All Snack Foods Are Not Created Equal
Prepared snack foods are popular with kids — and they can shorten lunch prep time for you — but it’s important to read labels to root out any products that include problematic ingredients. To avoid: trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors or flavors — as well as any ingredients to which your kids might be allergic or sensitive. Avoid products that list sugars among the top few ingredients, and choose foods that contain naturally occurring or healthy fats vs. hydrogenated and fractionated oils.
Kid-Friendly Lunch Treats
How to give kids healthier versions of the foods they crave:
1. Instead of Chips and Dip:
Hummus and Pita — Serve roasted red-pepper hummus with toasted whole-wheat pita triangles.
Sweet-Potato Chips and Dip — Pair sweet-potato chips with cottage cheese or a little sour cream.
2. Instead of Cookies:
PBJ Roll-Ups — Spread all-fruit preserves and peanut or almond butter on a whole-grain tortilla; roll up.
Balls of Fun — Using a melon-baller, make small balls of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew melon.
3. Instead of Fried Mozzarella Sticks:
Nutty Cheese Balls — Roll soft cheddar cheese into the size and shape of marbles; roll cheese balls into chopped walnuts or slivered almonds until all sides are coated.
4. Instead of Candy:
Apples With Maple Yogurt Dip — Serve fresh apple slices with full-fat plain yogurt that’s been spiked with a little maple syrup, which adds sweetness without excess sugar.
5. Instead of Doughnuts or Pop Tarts:
Cinnamon Crackers With Applesauce — Serve cinnamon graham crackers with unsweetened applesauce.
6. Instead of Nachos:
Guacamole and Veggies — Serve prepared guacamole with celery sticks, baby carrots, zucchini slices, baked corn chips and baked whole-grain pita triangles.
Pretzel Plunge — Serve pretzel sticks with black-bean dip or refried beans.
7. Instead of Ice Cream:
Fruit Smoothie — In a blender, combine 2⁄3 cup milk, 1⁄4 cup frozen raspberries or strawberries, and 1⁄4 cup sliced banana; purée until smooth.
Crunchy Yogurt — Top vanilla or maple yogurt with granola, pumpkin seeds or pecans.
8. Instead of Bologna and Meat Sticks:
Ham Roll-Ups — Top deli-sliced ham slices (or smoked turkey) with provolone cheese, shredded carrots, and thinly sliced pickles and green bell peppers; roll up.
9. Instead of Processed Cheese Crackers:
Stuffed Cherry Tomatoes — Stuff cherry tomatoes with a mixture of cream cheese and diced pimento-stuffed olives.
Herbed Cheese “Sandwiches” — Spread herbed goat cheese on whole-grain crackers; top with second cracker.