As the first month of school comes to an end, I’m already noticing a pretty monotonous lunchbox trend taking shape. Keegan would be perfectly happy to eat a PB&J sandwich with fruit and juice or a milk box every day for the rest of his school career, and I recently caught myself gradually succumbing to this routine. It’s quick, easy, and doesn’t involve an argument or the dreaded return of an untouched lunchbox after school. So you may be wondering why I intend to mess with something that, to some, would seem a non-issue.
To start, kids need fuel to get them through the hours of activity and cognitive skills their school day requires. I can feed Keegan calories, and that will keep him from starving to death, true, but he needs nourishment that comes from protein, whole grains, fruits and veggies, and low-fat, calcium-rich dairy products to reach his full potential.
Another reason to switch it up a bit – It’s so easy for kids (and grown-ups!) to fall into a dietary rut that includes just a handful of favorite foods. This restricts our intake of nutrients and deprives us of the chance to experience the abundance of flavors available in food. It also sets us up to be picky eaters because once this limited diet has been established it’s very hard to break away from.
So, with all of that in mind, I had to step back for a minute and take note of some foods that are fast and easy to make AND acceptable to a first grader as he’s surrounded by friends who may or may not be eating pudding snacks, cookies, chips, and other less healthy options. Here’s a list of my top 10 favorite alternates to -or healthy sides for- the trusty old PB&J. (Storage suggestions follow.)
|Rainbow Pasta Salad
Colorful whole grain pasta combined with bite-sized pieces of cheese creates a tasty way to add some veggies to your child’s lunch.
|Blueberry, Raspberry, or Peach Smoothie
Low-fat yogurt and real fruit provide calcium, protein, and immune-boosting vitamins for a lunch that’s served up cool and sweet. (Leave a quick comment and click “Sign up to our newsletter” below to receive a printable recipe card for these smoothies!)
There’s almost nothing more comforting on a gray autumn day than a steamy cup of soup. Serve your child’s favorite (low-sodium) and add in veggies –peas, corn, green beans, diced carrots– or protein-packed beans –black, kidney, or pinto.
|Fresh fruit cup
Grapes, berries, diced melon/pineapple/mango/oranges make a fun lunchtime snack that’s loaded with powerful antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C, and other nutrients that boost energy and fight illness-causing germs. Making it yourself instead of buying prepackaged saves money, puts you in control of quality, eliminates chemical preservatives, and reduces waste.
|Fruity yogurt cup with granola
Mix thawed frozen berries or mango puree into plain nonfat yogurt, and pack a little container or sandwich bag of granola on the side for sprinkling on top. (Kind of like a Fruit, Yogurt & Granola Parfait with the granola on the side.) This super combo provides protein, vitamins, and whole grains – it only seems like dessert.
|Veggies with light ranch dressing dip
Combine 1 part light ranch dressing with 2 parts plain nonfat yogurt for a zesty, low-fat dip that tastes great with carrot sticks, pea pods, sweet bell pepper strips, or any combination of your child’s favorite veggies.
|Carrot Cake Wrap
Ricotta has nearly as much protein per serving as PB but only half the fat/calories. It also has a creamy, mild flavor that’s delicious spread on a whole wheat tortilla and wrapped up with shredded carrots, raisins, diced dried apples or apricots, and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Drizzle with a little honey for an extra touch of sweet.
Don’t waste money on overpriced, nutritionally sparse pre-packaged pizza lunch kits. Pack a whole wheat mini bagel or pita, shredded cheese, homemade pizza sauce (2 tbsp. tomato paste w/ 1 tsp. Italian seasoning and a small amount of minced garlic), and a little container of diced toppings like olives, sweet bell peppers, mushrooms, grilled chicken or ham, and/or pineapple.
|Whole grain muffins
Skip the sandwich altogether and provide protein, fiber, and lightly sweet fruit flavor with one of these recipes: Mango-Raspberry Muffins or Golden Sunrise Apricot Muffins. Mango Raspberry Muffins
|Cottage cheese with fruit or diced tomatoes
This classic combo never gets boring when you switch up the fruit or trade it for tomatoes. It’s also a great way to utilize canned fruit when fresh is limited by the season. Try peaches, pears, fruit cocktail, or mandarin orange sections. Be careful to only buy fruit that is packed in 100% juice or extra light syrup or you’ll be adding lots of processed sugar to lunch.
Easily keep these foods spill-proof and maintained at safe temperatures all day with 2 of my favorite lunchbox must-haves.
1. SnapWare containers and a couple of small ice packs. I absolutely love these containers, and they’re great to have in the kitchen for leftovers, too. I have found small ice packs in the cooler section at Target and Kmart for about $1 each.
2. Thermos. Thermos has containers that keep food hot for 5 hours/cold for 7 hours. They also have some fun kid-friendly designs. Their products are now featured on my website, and you can get some great deals by clicking here.
Using these will actually save you money by avoiding high-priced individually packaged yogurt, fruit, applesauce, or drinks. (For example, I used to pay $5 a week for milk boxes – when I could get them on sale. Now we save money by using the Thermos container for milk poured from the gallon, which costs less.) As a side note, you could save even more time and money by packing a take-to-work lunch, skipping the line at the drive-thru and savoring your delicious, healthier, homemade meal. All of these ideas are also great for toddlers (see serving suggestions noted in individual recipes).
You will notice that the Thermos link is the only product currently featured on my website. As promised, I do not and will not promote, advertise, or feature products that I do not use myself. I have included this link as a way to help my readers save money and easily pack a healthy lunch without having to worrying about safety. If I could pass on regular savings to you for the Snap Ware containers, I would, but they do not currently offer a website link. However, there is a coupon link here that you may find useful.