Packing a healthy lunch your kid will actually eat can be a challenge. Here are tips for shopping for and preparing nutritious, appealing lunches. Plus, use our ideas to serve up healthy snacks.

Check out these easy and delicious recipes for lunches and snacks, and read up on the latest cool lunch gear.

Shopping and Preparing Foods

Sandwiches and wraps are staples of a packed lunch, but you don’t have to get stuck in this rut.  Rethink wraps by using romaine lettuce leaves, or use cucumber rounds to create mini sandwiches with tuna, salmon or chicken salad. Put leftover pastas or soups in a thermos to keep warm.

The fun of the meal can sometimes come from the accompanying sides and snacks. Browse the produce section and the snack aisle for items to serve your kids.

“For packaged snacks, we always say pair packaged with unpackaged,” says Katherine Shary, RD, LD, a registered dietitian with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. “Mother Nature offers great options for snacks; bananas and clementines are just as quick as packaged.”

When shopping packaged snacks, Shary recommends looking for items with the least amount of ingredients, as well as recognizable ingredients. Look for snacks with six grams of sugar or less and three grams of fiber or more. Caroline Burkholder, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at RootED Nutrition and Counseling, recommends finding snacks with 4-5 grams of protein.

Don’t be swayed by the latest products on the market or the labels proclaiming a food is healthy. Some terms are not defined by the Food and Drug Administration, so any product can use them.

“Those companies are great at marketing, and the packaging looks super enticing, but if you turn the package over and look at the ingredients, the front of the package means nothing,” Shary says. “For example, it may say it has a fruit or vegetable in it, but the ingredient is usually a powdered vegetable or a fruit juice concentrate, so you’re not getting the same benefits as you would from fruits and veggies. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. There are hot ways to label foods to entice people to buy them, but they don’t make a huge impact on nutritional value.”

Offer a variety of snack options. If your kids are older, have them help you prepare items the night before, such as creating their own trail mix or preparing a bento-style lunchbox to make their own version of Lunchables.

Smart Snacking

The school day can be long for students, especially for those with after-school activities or clubs. “Snacks can be great to keep hunger and energy stable,” Burkholder says. “We want to have some structure with snacks – having set snack times between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner can be helpful to keep hunger from getting too extreme, but make sure kids are still going into meals hungry. Active kids will certainly have higher nutrient needs. Kids are remarkably good at  responding to their hunger and modulating their intake based on their nutrition needs.”

If your kid rides the bus or goes straight from school to an activity, pack an extra snack in their lunch box for them to enjoy. If your ride home takes a while, consider having a snack in your car,  instead of having to deal with the temptation of running through a drive-thru.

“The best snacks are those that combine 2-3 food groups to provide a diverse profile of nutrients,” Burkholder says. “It can be great to offer a variety of snacks together; for example, apple slices, string cheese and chips.”

Both dietitians recommend pairing a protein and a carb, such as beans, peanut butter, yogurt, string cheese or nuts with fruit, whole grain crackers, pretzels or toast.

Keep these snacks on hand:

  • Siggi’s kids pouches or yogurts
  • Sargento Balanced Breaks
  • Nature’s Garden Trail Mix Snack Packs
  • Biena Chickpea Snacks
  • Perfect Kids bars
  • Oscar Mayer Natural Plates
  • Wholly Guacamole with pretzels or mini bell peppers
  • Fruits or fruit cups
  • Hummus with baby carrots or pita chips
  • Seed or nut butters with crackers, a banana or an apple
  • Popcorn
  • Trail mix
  • Pretzels
  • Goldfish
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Toast

Originally published in Aug. 2021.

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