I’m a dietitian. I have a kid. You’d think it’d be easy to pack kid lunches then, right?
Not for me. My son is starting his second year of part-time preschool. Although I’m having trouble believing it, he’ll be in the Toddler Room this year. Not only does that mean my son is growing up too fast, but it also means I have to pack him a lunch. A real “big kid” lunch, not a collection of chopped-up finger foods and purees in an assortment of tiny boxes and bowls like I got away with last year.
I never thought I’d have to pack school lunches so early into parenthood! Just the thought stresses me out. I want him to have a variety of foods, but balanced meals — and brainstorming ideas that check those boxes can be tough. Despite trying to do my best, I always felt like I was being judged as a parent by what food my son came to school with. Where’s the protein? Why no veggies? Where’s the oatmeal? That’s not enough milk! Last year was a daily last-minute scramble for odds and ends I thought passed for a good enough meal I could throw in individual serving-size containers. Not only is that boring, but it’s not allowed this year. Single lunch boxes only!
I’m determined not to let packing a healthy lunch for school be a stressor this year. Instead, I’ve perfected my methods over this long hot summer, and I’ve practically got it down to a science!
You can click through to see examples of some of the lunches I’ve put together. Add your suggestion in the comments so I don’t get stuck in a rut — it’s a long school year!
Lunch Box Ideas 1 of 11
Looking for a healthy, balanced, yet tasty school lunch for your kid? Don't worry! Here are 10 ideas you and your little ones can feel good about.
Taco Loco 2 of 11
Chicken, corn, and black bean soft taco, almond milk yogurt, zucchini fries and sweet potato coins, gluten-free crackers.
Sticky notes: I cheated on this one. It's a leftover taco from a kids-eat-free day at a Mexican restaurant. I won't tell if you don't.
Pizza Pizzazz 3 of 11
Leftover cheese-free veggie pizza, allergy-free granola bar, hardboiled egg, sweet potato fries with cumin and garam marsala, strawberries.
Sticky notes: I like to keep granola bars on hand because they're an easy, no-fuss snack for my son to eat on his own without making a mess. (Snacks meeting those requirements can be hard to find because he has allegies.) I usually reserve them for home, but every once in a while I'll part with one and send it to school with him.
Roll Ups 4 of 11
Low-sodium turkey roll ups, sweet potato rounds with cinnamon and chili powder, apple-cinnamon graham crackers, Del Monte FruitBurst Fruit+Veggie pouch: peach mango.
Sticky notes: I didn't have any non-starchy veggies or a fresh fruit cut up and ready to go, so I grabbed a squeeze pouch with a serving and a half of fruit and veggies and called it a day. What is it that makes toddlers so obsessed with fruit pouches?! They're like gold in my house. Better than gold!
Bits and Pieces 5 of 11
Del Monte pineapple and mango fruit cup, crackers, carrot sticks, turkey roll up, hardboiled egg.
Sticky notes: Using a pre-packed fruit cup adds an extra space to my divided containers, which is helpful for snack-tray type lunches. This Del Monte one is HFCS free.
Variety Pack 6 of 11
Diced rotisserie chicken, roasted potatoes, bell pepper slices, hummus, bread and butter pickles, and a Del Monte FruitBurst fruit & veggie pouch.
Sticky notes: I noticed at the last minute that I forgot a fruit, so I tossed in a pouch. My little man doesn't always eat peppers, so at least there's a backup on the veggie front too. One thing I can always count on him eating is pickles, of all things. To make sure he doesn't get too much sodium I only give him 2 slices at a time, then hide the jar in the very, very back of the fridge.
Snack Plate 7 of 11
Shredded low-sodium turkey, blueberries, veggie sticks, apple cinnamon graham crackers, diced mango, Del Monte Simply Fruit pouch in mixed berry.
Sticky notes: My son is a fruit-aholic. I've never, ever had trouble getting him to eat fruit. When he's having an especially picky week, I make sure to load him up with extra fruit to make sure he gets enough calories in to support his near-constant running. I like that the Del Monte pouches aren't applesauce-based. Goodness knows we eat enough applesauce in this house as it is!
Breakfast for Lunch 8 of 11
Spinach, portabella mushroom, and red pepper quiche, veggie sticks, blueberries.
Sticky notes: The quiche was our dinner the night before. Using it as my toddler's lunch the next day made things super easy on me in the morning. I had leftovers for lunch too.
Dip Station 9 of 11
Sliced apples, carrots, peanut butter, grapes, and pasta salad made with rice spirals, corn, and peppers.
Sticky notes: Dipping fruit that can brown, like apples, in lime juice or another citrus juice will keep them from turning an unappetizing color.
Muffin Tops 10 of 11
Black beans, zucchini chips, Del Monte FruitBurst Simply Fruit pouch in mixed berry, corn muffin.
Sticky notes: My son isn't a huge meat eater, so beans are a good way to get some protein in him. Plus, he loves them. Today there's only a corn muffin top because somebody (cough, cough) forgot to spray the muffin tin liners.
Leftover Roundup 11 of 11
Sweet potato fries, zucchini chips, black beans, a hardboiled egg, and strawberries.
Sticky notes: I was using up all my leftovers from other lunches here. Luckily, kids don't mind a little randomness.
All photo credits: Heather Neal
In the meantime, here are 4 tips I’ve picked up along the way:
- Pick the right container. I typically use a generic plastic resealable container divided into three sections or a box that has three different compartments and folds itself. Bento boxes would be fun too. Be sure they’re BPA-free and are microwavable and freezable (if you think you’ll be doing that).
- Go for convenience. You don’t have to whip up a gourmet meal to satisfy both your kid and your nutrition requirements. I like using on-the-go fruit and veggie pouches and portable fruit snack cups. They’re high fructose corn syrup-free and taste good.
- Mix it up. It doesn’t matter if certain things “go” with each other. Kids don’t care! Graham crackers and pizza? Tacos and blueberries? Why not?
- Maximize leftovers. We eat dinner after my son goes to bed, so he doesn’t typically have the same dinner as us. That doesn’t mean I can’t still use leftovers in his lunch. They don’t have to be “lunch-y”— just yummy!
Oh, and if these lunches look like they’re missing something, it’s because we’re an allergy family. Adding cheese cubes, yogurt tubes, or string cheese could round out the lunches a little.