My first son is off to Kindergarten this year. Sniff sniff. So there’s no better time than this one for me to finally talk PACKED LUNCHES! It seems like it’s an easy task, but it’s difficult to know what nutrients they need and how to maintain variety so their lunch boxes come home empty. It reminds me a little of the day when I had to feed my son his first solids…kinda scary, such a difficult subject to tackle, but one we all get the hang of eventually (and with a little trial and error).
Instead of giving you a few “perfect” lunch combos, I'm going to share some ideas that you can freely and creatively mix and match to come up with a lunch that is nutritious and also fits your child's (probably picky) taste buds.
When packing a lunch most people immediately think "meal." Instead of thinking about lunch like this, let's break it down into simple food groups and then build upon these basic blocks.
- Protein / Fat
- And, of course, SNACKS / TREATS (this is definitely a kids food group!)
Thinking about lunches in this way makes eating healthy less complex and time consuming.
Here we go...
- In a perfect world, chopped fruit, berries, or a simple banana is best. But let's be real, a lot of kids don't like this. So, consider a smoothie or blended / puréed fruit that you can put into a pouch for them to "drink" or eat with spoon. Have you seen this awesome new gadget that helps you make your own pouches of fruit purée? Use it with the complementary reusable squeeze pouch or do it yourself with these adorable ones from Squooshi.
- Dehydrated fruit (like dried mangos or freeze dried berries) or fruit leathers made by hand, at home, in an inexpensive dehydrator are an alternative.
- As a last resort, you can pack store-bought organic fruit leather, organic applesauce, or organic fruit snack. Just stay away from the traditional fruit roll-ups and look for fruit snacks that are organic with no sugar or artificial dyes—kids can become hyper active after eating red dyes in particular.
Vegetables are sooooo grounding for kids. Eating them on a regular basis can help children concentrate better. So, don't skimp on this when packing lunch.
- Chopped raw veggies like carrots and cucumbers are great finger foods for kids. I usually give them some dip, like hummus (more on that later) or the old celery with natural peanut butter trick. Try a green smoothie full of veggies and fruit (or you can purée the veggies as mentioned above).
- Skip potato chips in favor of dehydrated snacks like kale chips. Kale chips are such a genius way to get kids to eat kale and peppers or tomatoes. There are lots of flavors you can try as well. Try my sour cream and onion recipe. Dehydrating zucchini is also awesome. You're left with a crunchy chip! If you buy veggie chips and snacks, look for the local organic vendors.
- You can sauté veggies that you made a night before with some spices or cheese. I sauté broccoli with coconut oil and tamari. My kids fight over it—it's so good!
PROTEIN / FAT
I lumped these two items together because you want both in your diet/lunch, but you don't need as much.
- Vegan Mayo tastes wonderful and is the best thing to make sandwiches with. My kids absolutely LOVE mustard, vegan mayo, and avocado sandwiches. When they are feeling adventurous we add some spinach, arugula, or lettuce.
- Avocado brown rice sushi is a wonderful option. You can make this at home so easily. Check out my Instagram video how-to. It takes just a few minutes to wrap these up. Add a little tamari and voila!
- Hummus: A family favorite at our house! I put some in a tiny reusable container and package chopped veggies or rice crackers to go along with it. Or I make a hummus sandwich for my kids. Either way, it's so healthy and you can make your own in less than 15 minutes!
- If you're a meat-eating family, then get creative. Mix it up. Salmon and beef jerky are a bit salty but sometimes a fun snack option. Try and find organic, gluten-free, and low sugar/salt varieties. Why not throw in a grass-fed, no nitrate hot dog in there? Try cooked salmon, sardines, or another of your fave fish in a reusable container. Add a fork and let them eat it plain.
- Edamame beans are a great natural, fun, protein-filled snack to throw in the lunch box (just avoid too much processed soy and soy isolates).
- What about a plain hard-boiled egg? My kids LOVE hard-boiled eggs. Or you can mash it up with vegan mayo and avocado as a salad or a sandwich.
- A small bag of raw almonds? YUM! As long as your kids are good chewers, this option is perfect. Maybe a homemade trail mix? With some dried fruit as well? Kids LOVE pistachios. Trader Joes sells them already roasted and kids can remove the shells. It's like an activity at lunchtime.
- Since we don't eat a lot of meat or tofu at my house, we make protein bars at home. Lots of nuts, oats, puffed rice, or even buckwheat, some dates, and whatever flavors we want. Try my homemade recipe from Pure Mamas.
- Protein and vitamin powders! These powders can be used to add to a drink, a homemade granola/protein bar, or even to oatmeal or yogurt. The Honest Company makes a great kids’ vitamin powder perfect for this purpose. Or try another Pure Mamas homemade "bar" recipe; it includes chocolate and you can add your fave protein powder.
Let’s be honest, every kid eats snacks. It's in their nature to grab things that are packaged and bright! Because every family is different with their dietary needs and rules, snacks can vary from yogurt to dried fruit to seaweed to candy (just avoid artificial colorings and dyes). I often get asked what my kids eat as a snack. So, here is a list of some that make me feel comfortable if my kids raid the cupboard.
- Kids need so many calories to get through their busy days, so sometimes it's okay to let them snack on a nutrition bar. However, these bars can be filled with tons of sugar, corn syrup, soy protein isolates, dyes, and other icky stuff, so be careful to read labels.
- Looking for a candy corn alternative? This one tastes amazing; it's sweetened with coconut sugar. It's a nice indulgence.
- What kid doesn't like gummies? This is a super special treat at our house. Annie’s are non-GMO verified, free of artificial colors and preservatives, and vegan.
- My kids love seaweed and literally FIGHT over these sprouted rice crackers with seaweed.
- Enjoy Life makes a fun milk chocolate bar using rice milk.
- Hail Merry's tarts and macaroons are to-die-for decadent. They are raw, vegan, and just amazing no-guilt treats.
- The mango flavor Funky Monkey snack is so darn good! Just fruit, no added sugar.
- These aren't as popular with my kids, but every once in a while we enjoy nut butter balls. YUM!
Of course, you can give kids left over dinner or more of a meal for lunch. I'm just offering simple ideas for quick and easy lunch packing. What are your favorite healthy lunchtime meals and snacks?
~ Juli Novotny of Pure Mamas