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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Healthy school lunch ideas for kids

Ham "sushi" roll-ups with a little bit of everything
(Here's my review of the eco friendly lunch containers I love to pack lunches in.)

The other day, when I was making lunch for my 2 children, aged 6 and 4, I started thinking about healthy lunches since people often ask me for ideas. That day, I made turkey sandwiches on whole wheat bread, and packed cheese, blueberries, and a combination of cucumbers, carrots and string beans (that’s what was in the fridge). It made me realize something: a healthy lunch is an extension of a healthy diet.

An easy way to think about a healthy meal is a combination of carbohydrates, protein, vegetables and fruit. Keep the sugar to a minimum, especially refined, to make sure your little ones feel good. Once in a while, I’ll add a granola or cereal bar, maybe a sugared yogurt or muffins (cookies and sweets are discouraged at the pre-school and school where both of them attend). The point is, I don’t give them three sugary things in one lunch. Instead, I keep other choices stocked in the fridge and pantry.

I almost always give them whole wheat bread. The best advice I can give you is to read the label. Look for bread that has at least 3 grams or more of fiber in it. Bread should not have a lot of sugar or any high fructose corn syrup. A good rule of thumb is that you should recognize the ingredients. There are lots of options out there which aren’t all dry and crumbly. You can also use whole wheat or spelt (another form of wheat) wraps for sandwiches. When I make ham roll-ups made from wheat lavash with avocado or lettuce, my son calls it ham sushi. It's a new favorite. For kids who want something different, try brown rice sushi or some type of hot meal served over brown rice.

For protein, it involves planning at the grocery store. If your children go to school everyday, you can buy turkey on Sunday and serve it Monday and Wednesday. Make chicken for dinner Monday night and serve that on Tuesday. Thursday can be avocado and cheese and maybe hard boiled eggs or egg salad on Friday. There’s always ham and roast beef to make sandwiches as well. Try to buy natural sandwich meat that does not contain nitrates or added solutions. Here's an interesting discussion if you want more information.

For other sources of protein, use natural peanut, almond or cashew butters or those that are low sugar with no hydrogenated oils. If you are avoiding nuts, try sunflower butter. Jelly or jam should be low sugar and should not contain unnatural sweeteners (i.e. sugar-free). There’s nothing wrong with peanut butter and jelly but it’s better if it’s not laden with sugar.

You can also serve dips like hummus or bean dip which can be made into sandwiches or served with vegetables. My daughter likes tofu; some times I send that in her lunch.

If you are looking for ideas for something other than sandwiches, look to your leftovers. Chicken and rice, macaroni and cheese, soup, and chili are all good options. Just make sure you can keep the hot food hot. Keep in mind that foods which are in some type of sauce or liquid will stay hotter longer.

Balanced Lunches
Are trying to get a little of everything in a lunch? Start with making a lunch that has these four components: Protein, Carbohydrate, Fruit and a Veggie. Here are examples of each.

  • Protein: turkey, chicken, ham, black beans, garbanzo beans, tofu
  • Carbohydrate (always use whole grain): bread, tortillas, crackers, bagel, pretzels
  • Fruit (use seasonal): apples, bananas, dried fruit, berries, melon
  • Veggie (raw or cooked): carrot, celery, peas, string beans, cucumber slices, avocado or guacamole, lettuce, broccoli, pepper slices

If your children don't like sandwiches or you want some ideas for your own lunches, try these ideas.
  • Cooked sushi (California roll or shrimp)
  • Burrito (wheat tortilla, black beans and jack cheese)
  • Tortilla rolled up w/various fillings like hummus and veggies, cheese, turkey, depending on what's on hand. Roll it up very tightly, then slice into kid-sized pieces
  • Non-sandwiches like turkey rolled and cut into finger food size with a side of whole wheat pita bread wedges
  • Egg salad served with whole wheat crackers
  • Hummus sandwich with arugula or lettuce
  • Avocado and cheese sandwich (add tomato and/or lettuce as well)
  • Crustless quiche/frittata

Snacks for Lunches or After School
For kids that go all day (camp or school), you often have to pack a lunch. Here are some ideas for those snacks or even for after school.

  • Low-sugar muffins
  • Plain yogurt with added fruit or granola
  • Unsweetened applesauce (consider buying a big jar and placing into small reusable containers; much more economical and better for the environment)
  • Orange slices
  • Assorted berries (blueberries, raspberries and strawberries) in a reusable container
  • Veggies like bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, broccoli and carrot with small container of ranch dressing, hummus or mayo for dipping
  • String cheese or slices of cheese (less expensive and less waste)
  • Bean dip & corn chips
  • Edamame beans
  • 1/2 sandwich
If you want your children to be healthy eaters, involve them in the process. Ask them which colors they want to eat today. Giving them choices enables them to be part of the decision. Be careful to label foods as good or bad. It becomes more of a balance between “some time” foods and “most of the time” foods. Before you wonder about what to pack for lunch, make sure your cupboard and fridge are stocked with plenty of healthy choices.

Check this blog as well as my website for more healthy, easy recipes.