Healthy School Lunch Ideas You Can Call Happy Meals

Although time-consuming and arguably tedious, packing a lunch for yourself or your children can be a powerful way to express your love and support and set a healthy intention for the day. At its core, preparing food for others is an act of love — and, as a parent, one of the most potent powers we possess is to support our children’s health. Embrace the chance to make the meal special, healthy and tasty and your children will feel the depth of your care for them.

With the school year upon us, I’ve re-energized myself for the usual morning mania of making multiple breakfasts, packing multiple lunches and getting all of us out the door on time. Here are my key tips for smooth sailing with lunchbox production line:

Ask Questions and Communicate

The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to sit down with your children for a quick discussion about what to include in the lunchbox — ask what they like, what they don’t like, and offer a few ideas for new things they can try. Taking their age into account, make them feel included and empowered and keep the dialogue open throughout the year.

Get the Right Gear

When preparing lunches for little ones, remember that presentation is half the battle — just like us, kids love to eat food that looks good. An appetizing appearance, however, is not always easy when the meal has been sitting a backpack or locker for hours. Children are easily impressed by clever packaging and presentation or a favorite character-themed thermos. I rely on a good quality stainless steel thermos to pack leftovers from dinner, often re-purposed with one new ingredient to make the meal feel new and fresh. I also like bento box style lunch containers, which work especially well for younger kids who crave variety but don’t need large portion sizes.

Follow a Formula

Some eaters—big or small—enjoy variety, while others like the same thing every day. But no matter what, make sure to pack real, nourishing foods: some type of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and fruit. My lunchbox formula includes a protein, a fiber-rich vegetable or fruit and a “treat” designed to make the meal feel special.

Repurpose Dinner Leftovers

To save time in the kitchen, make your mantra: Cook once and eat twice.” Leftovers can be a great lunch box staple, either simply re-heated and put into the thermos, or re-purposed, for variety and changed into a slightly different dish. By cooking extra protein for dinner (e.g. chicken, fish, beans, red meat), I can turn the leftovers into a salad topping for myself and a mix for a simple rice-and-meat based stew for my kids’ thermos.

Here Are My Top 5 Go-to Lunchbox Meals

  1. Chicken and rice (can substitute any protein): In a small pan, sauté chopped onion and garlic and fresh or dried herbs and mix in cooked rice or quinoa with small pieces of leftover meat or fish. Add a small amount of bone broth if you have any on hand, or water to make a quick stew. Once heated, transfer to thermos and pack with a fork, spoon and piece of fruit for dessert.
  2. Protein-rich mini bites: If you have two small thermoses, use one to keep these delicious, grass-fed beef and nitrate-free hotdogs warm (cook on stove and cut into small pieces before putting in thermos) and one for cherry-sized (”ciliegine”) mozzarella balls, speared on a toothpick with grape tomatoes to create a mini-Caprese salad!
  3. Bento-box variety plate: For the child who likes to nibble, use a segmented container or bento box to quickly put together toothpick skewers of their favorite fruit and veggies, a “turkey roll-up” (slice of turkey rolled up and secured with a toothpick), avocado, cubed cheese, and a Justin’s squeeze pack of almond butter or a mini-container of hummus to use as a dip.
  4. Deviled eggs: These can be customized to suit your child’s tastes, with all sorts of mix-ins as options, such as guacamole, chopped veggies, spices, or you can make them super-basic and they still pack a nutritional punch.
  5. Leftover-based soup: Rely on the trusty blender to turn last night’s leftover vegetables into a delicious “cream-of-X” soup, with X being whatever veggie you have. If you’re dairy-free, bone broth makes soup making easy, or you can use a bit of cream and butter and fresh herbs to guarantee a rich taste. Simply sauté onion, garlic (or leeks or shallots) in a pan, add the leftover veggies and then purée with either milk/cream or broth, or a combination of both. Transfer to a thermos and include a Ziploc of sliced apple to be topped with an almond butter squeeze pack or use a container for fruit and a portion of protein-rich nut butter.
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