More than half of parents send their kids to school with a packed lunch and 41 percent want their kids to eat healthier, a recent Nielsen survey of parents found.
What parents don’t want is to have those healthy choices dumped, traded or returned uneaten.
There’s some evidence that that won’t happen—at least, not all the time. Over three years, researchers from the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity weighed and photographed school lunches at 12 Connecticut schools. They found that kids weren’t turning their noses up at healthy choices. In fact, they discovered that the more variety the kids had, the more they ate. If there were two or more fruit options, for example, there was a 9.3 percent increase in the number of kids who ate fruit.
Nutrisystem nutritionist Mandi Knowles, RDN, LDN, sends her two kids to kindergarten and preschool with packed lunches—which the kids, ages four and five, help prepare! Kids “are more likely to eat what they help prepare,” says Knowles.
Here, she offers nine other healthy lunch ideas for kids that will definitely get eaten:
1. Serve leftovers. Think whole wheat pasta from last night, taco meat over a salad, chicken, rice and vegetables tossed together. They liked it at dinner—they’ll like it at lunch.
2. Cut up vegetables with dip. Slice up your own or buy cut veggies and provide delicious dips like hummus, guacamole, full-fat or yogurt-based dips and salad dressings that are so tasty they’ll make those vegetables disappear.
3. Make a bento box. Opening this traditional Japanese portable meal in a box—with more familiar foods, of course—is like unwrapping a surprise. You can buy microwaveable and leak-proof bento boxes in stores such as Target. Fill them with a variety of foods, such as rolled up lunchmeat, cut-up cheese, baby carrots and dip, almonds (unless your school is nut-free because of allergies), grapes or other cut-up fruit, and whole grain crackers. It’s a party in a box.
4. Focus on food groups. Go over the food groups with your kids and brainstorm ways to get as many as possible in one lunch. Always include protein, vegetables, and healthy fats because “they’re the most filling and help them get through the day,” says Knowles. “You can also add a fruit or whole grain.”
5. Go thin. Whole wheat sandwich thins are “the perfect portion for kids, with half the calories of two slices of regular bread,” says Knowles.
6. Have some fun. Use sandwich cutter sets in a variety of shapes and size to make plain old sandwiches fun. Create “ants on a log” by spreading some low-sugar peanut butter, cream cheese, or other thick spread on a celery stick and topping it with raisins. Make grape tomato “people” using toothpicks. “Kids will love to show their friends all the fun things you can do with healthy food,” says Knowles.
7. Stick with water. As long as your kids are getting the correct amount of calcium every day, via milk or other dairy, they can quench their thirst with water, which doesn’t add any calories and does the trick at lunch.
8. Knowles’ son is allergic to peanuts, so she uses natural sunflower or almond butter for a twist on the PB & J. You can make your own antioxidant-rich “jelly” by boiling down some strawberries in water until they’re soft, mashing them with a little agave or maple syrup and chia seeds, which “gels” the concoction.
9. Serve DIY nuggets. You don’t have to deprive your kids of their favorite foods, like chicken nuggets, just because they’re not the healthiest. It takes very little time to cook up a big batch of healthier nuggets on the weekend, using boneless, skinless chicken breast (or chicken tenderloins). Dip the finger-sized pieces into beaten egg and buttermilk, then roll them in panko crumbs. Fry them in a pan in a little olive oil just to get them crispy then finish them in the oven. Serve with your kids’ favorite dip.