Inside A Nutritionist’s Kids’ Lunch
By Teresa Wagner, RD, LD
August 30, 2022
Just as the school year is gaining speed, are you in the kitchen losing speed just thinking about what to pack for lunch? Today I bring you along as I pack a couple days of my kiddos’ school lunch.
I know it can be a hassle, but truly, a nutritious lunch is so important and beneficial for children to learn and behave in school. From my experience, sugar usually causes more silliness or hyperactivity and gluten more naughtiness so you’ll see that I’m aware of not giving them too much of either.
One thing to note is when creating meals for kids, they need the same components as adults: healthy proteins, fats, and carbs. We often see kid’s menus at restaurants full of grilled cheese, fries, chicken nuggets (we actually have a healthy chicken nugget recipe on our website), which maybe suggests otherwise. However, growing bodies and brains need the nutrient building blocks that will provide them with good energy, stable moods, and the ability to focus and learn.
When creating meals for your kiddos (or grandkiddos!), remember to include some sort of animal protein, healthy fat, and whole food carbohydrates. These three powerhouses create the perfect balance for blood sugar and brain fuel. Food is nourishment. Healthy food builds a healthy body, brain and immune system; junk and processed foods do not.
Learn more about nutrition for kids in our online class Healthy Foods to Build Happy, Focused Kids for only $25.
These are ideas that work in our house and I hope they inspire lunches in yours!
First, I can’t stand the idea of all the trash that’s associated with school lunches (all those plastic baggies!) so I don’t use much throwaway stuff. You can see two of our favorite containers in the following lunch ideas, one is Thermos brand and another is Fuel. There are also fun Bento boxes on the market these days that have little sections in one container. One thing to consider about your choice of containers, beyond keeping food hot or cold, is that it has to be easy for little hands to open. My kid’s don’t have much time for lunch and I don’t want them fussing with the container, cutting into precious eating time.
Lastly, I’d say give your kids a little bit of choice. I just give them two options—this isn’t a restaurant!
Day 1 lunches
- Protein: Turkey cubes for my daughter. I buy nitrate-free deli meat, the thickest slices you can get, and then I cut it up for her. Similar to other children, I’ve learned that she’ll eat meat protein only if it’s bite-sized. She wouldn’t touch a big hunk of turkey.
- Fat: I throw in some olives for her fat and, to be honest, she’ll maybe have only one or two. Getting my kiddos to eat good fats is a challenge for me. But I continue to pack fat, because she won’t eat it if it isn’t there. I’m hoping that peer influence comes into play, you know putting the olives on their fingers and playing with it, then she might eat it...a mom can dream!
- Carbs: Some of her favorites are raspberries, baby cucumbers and carrots.
- Protein: Sausage is always a hit, I grab the sweet apple Bilinski chicken sausage for my kids (and the cilantro lime for the adults!).
- Fat: Again, a challenge, but he likes guacamole, so I put it in there.
- Carbs: Raspberries, baby cucumbers and carrots.
Day 2 lunches
- Protein: Beef chili is a crowd-pleaser. I send it with both of them which is a time saver.
- Fat: This one’s a bit sneaky, and wonderful, because I pureed olives and add that into the chili, a good fat for both of them! My son likes sour cream, another great fat, so I add that too.
- Carbs: Veggies in the chili and I add grapes for more good carbs.
I don’t want to be misleading and say we always have these picture-perfect lunches. Sometimes it’s just not going to happen, maybe I haven’t been to the grocery store or we oversleep. You have to keep it realistic and allow for a school lunch once in a while if that’s what they want; I think it’s important to have that experience too.
To keep blood sugar stable between school and activities, real food snacks are great! Having a bowl or platter filled with options gives them autonomy to make their own decisions and they can choose whatever they want from the bowl or platter. Or have multiples of these options in a small cooler or lunch box for on-the-go nibbles between practice or rehearsal. To cover all the nutrient bases, include a variety of veggies, fruits, fats, and proteins. Here are some examples of my go-tos (these could also be included in lunches too!):
- Veggies: carrots, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, jicama sticks
- Fruits: apples, clementines, bananas, pears, berries, plums, grapes
- Fats: pepitas, sunflower seeds, olives, nuts, nut butters
- Proteins: turkey or beef sticks, deli meat, cheese sticks, hard boiled eggs, summer sausage
Get customized support making a meal plan for your family in a 1:1 counseling appointment with a dietitian or nutritionist.
I really think half the battle is having a meal plan. Think about it in advance and make sure when you grocery shop you have your plan. Once I’m home from the store I cut up all the veggies I can, which obviously saves time in the mornings. When they are old enough, start getting your kids involved. When you plant the seeds of how to build a meal with protein, fats, and carbs, your kids will have a checklist of what to include in their lunches when they want to start making it themselves. One thing I've found with my daughter as she's getting a little older and has this newfound independence, she naturally looks for the PFC (protein, fat, carb) because she wants to do a good job and she's showing her skills.
Beyond that, if you have time, do a big batch of something, try the Nutritional Weight & Wellness chili or maybe the Muffin Tin Meatloaf. Egg muffins and chicken salad can also be made in a big batch and used throughout the week. And if you need more help with ideas and how to meal plan for your family, consider taking a virtual cooking class or making an appointment with one of our dietitians and nutritionists to make a game plan for your family.
What tricks have eased your lunch routine? Share with us in the comments!
For more information on healthy food tips for kids, check out these resources:
- Read: Balanced Nutrition for Focused Kids
- Read: Foods to Help Boost a Child’s Moods (+ Signs of Nutrient Deficiencies)
- Listen: Food to Help Kids Focus
- Try: Why Do We Need Snacks? (And How To Make Them Healthy!) for more snack ideas!