Healthy School Lunch Ideas

Good nutrition is one of the most important health factors for growing bodies and brains. Ensuring that your kids are eating the right foods early on will have a significant effect on their health and happiness through adolescence and into adulthood. Many people know this, but the difficulty lies in actually making it happen.

Check out some of the most effective ways to pack a healthy school lunch for your kids.

Rising Obesity Rates

According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, over one-third of all children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese. Obese kids have increased risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and they have increased risks of developing diabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems. On top of that, obese kids are likely to grow into obese adults who face increased risks of heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and even cancer.

Rising Obesity Among U.S. Children

The Evils of Sugar

One of the biggest food culprits behind rising obesity levels and poor nutrition is sugar, and it’s often harder to detect than you think. You may be shocked to find that often the second or third ingredient in products like ketchup, barbecue sauce, and cereal is sugar, let alone the astronomical levels in the candy and chocolate bars that line our grocery store shelves at just the right height to entice little eyes and hands.

But while all the cards seem to be stacked against us to provide nutritionally robust school lunches for our kids, it doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. By having a few tricks up your sleeve, you can make healthy, balanced, delicious, fun meals for your kids and still have time to get everything else done.

Daily Calorie Intake for Children

Love Leftovers

Leftovers are the perfect place to start. Rather than overeating during dinner or wasting excess food, why not use your leftovers as a staple of your kids’ school lunches? Leftover roast beef and chicken make delicious, filling sandwiches and wraps. Just cut up some fresh tomato and basil, add some green salad leaves and a slice of (non-processed) cheese, and voilà, the main item is done. Make sure to slice your bread as thinly as possible (try a 7-grain, 12-grain, or whole grain rye loaf) and avoid bulky sandwich buns with low nutritional value.

Wraps are a great way to hold messier ingredients. Leftover chili can make an excellent burrito with the addition of some homemade salsa (just mix together chopped tomato, onion, green pepper, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper). Add some freshly chopped red, yellow, or orange bell pepper for a satisfying crunch. Wraps also offer a great way to get in a serving of beans, which kids often avoid when they are served separately (or when they are not drenched in a sugar-based sauce, like the ubiquitous cans of sweet baked beans). When you buy cans of beans, make sure you buy beans with no sauce or other additives.

Adding fresh veggies and herbs is a great way to liven up last night’s meals – your kids may not even realize they’re eating leftovers!

Homemade is Always Better

Reading the nutritional labels on many popular products – particularly canned, jarred, and bottled sauces, spreads, and juices – can feel like staring at a sign written in a language you don’t know. The lists of impossible-to-pronounce additives, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors seem almost comically long on some products you’d think should be pretty straightforward.

Sugars are some of the worst perpetrators to catch because they’re not lumped together under the word “sugar” in ingredient lists. Sugars can all be listed under the following names: cane juice, fruit juice, corn syrup, caramel, barley malt, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, dextrose, dextrin, maltodextrin, galactose, lactose, diatase, turbinado, and ethyl maltol. That’s a frightening list.

The good news is that you can make things like jams and juices at home quite easily. To me, there is no better drink than freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s worth investing in an electric juicer, especially one that’s only $15, or go for a more advanced version to incorporate a wider variety of fruits and even vegetables. You can mix and match your juices to your tastes, too. Try adding grapefruit, strawberry, and banana. With an endless number of possible combinations, your kids will never get sick of their options! For more details, check out this handy 101 guide to juicing.

To make your own jam, simply add your fruit to a saucepan (this works great with fruits that are no longer fresh and that look a bit past their best-before date) with a bit of water. Stew them over medium heat until you have the consistency you desire. Add a little bit of brown sugar or raw honey to sweeten the mixture – you’ll end up using far less than you find in store-bought varieties.

Get Creative

A healthy school lunch doesn’t have to be boring for your kids. A great way to get them excited about healthy eating is to involve them in the process. Make a couple of their favorite jams and spreads at home together (you can get them to name their creations and design their own jar labels) or set up a communal DIY sandwich-making station. This can be an excellent opportunity to teach your kids about good nutrition and get them actively engaged in understanding all the elements of a balanced meal.

Packing a Healthy School Lunch

Try using cookie cutters to cut your fruit into stars or hearts for a fruit salad, or create an Easter egg bento box with healthy snacks. These creative approaches work especially well for younger children and picky eaters.

Treats in Moderation

Creating a healthy school lunch doesn’t mean omitting treats. It just means including them in a smart way.

Instead of packing a full-size chocolate bar, buy little Halloween-sized bars. Because they’re so small, you can include two different types so your kids feel like they’re getting a two-for-one deal.

Repack snacks in small plastic baggies. This is a great way to exercise better portion control. Instead of buying individual chip bags, buy one big bag and portion out a smaller handful into your own re-sealable baggies.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: homemade is always better. Crumbles and cobblers are easy desserts you can make at home. Start with one of your homemade jams and layer it over some fresh fruit (this works great with berries, peaches, apples, etc.). Sprinkle an oat-based crumble mixture (essentially oats, flour, sugar, and butter) on top, and stick it in the oven until it’s browned on top. The most important part of the process is controlling the amount of sugar you include in the recipe. By making your own, you can avoid all the extra additives in similar store-bought versions.

Keys to Healthy School Lunch Success

The secret to success in providing healthy school lunches for your kids is to arm yourself with some helpful tips and tricks to keep things balanced, diverse, and fun. Incorporate leftovers with fresh cut veggies, legumes, and herbs. Make homemade jams and juices. Always check the labels on store-bought products to see how high in the list sugars appear and whether there are endless unpronounceable ingredients you’ll want to avoid. Get creative – who doesn’t love playing with their food? And don’t be afraid of a little indulgence – treats in moderation are a good thing, especially when they reward and reinforce healthy eating behavior.

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