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Healthy Lunch Box Ideas for Children

Nutritious School Lunches

Healthy packing doesn't always mean healthy eating. Sure, it looks simple and easy, but how do we get our children to actually eat the healthy lunch we pack?

The best way to encourage our children to eat healthy is to make them part of menu planning and food shopping. Let your child make choices about soup, bread, sandwich spreads and fillings, fruit, and vegetables. Most of us pack too much food in our child’s lunch box and children tend to eat the "sweet stuff" first. Although it's often more expensive, many individual serving foods like pretzel sticks, applesauce, cheese sticks or cubes, vegetable dips and yogurt are healthy, easy to pack, and attractive to children.

Try making gradual changes towards a healthier lunch. You can pack the usual sandwich and add vegetables and dip instead of chips, or put in half of the child’s usual sandwich and add half of something new.

Lunch Ideas for Kids

When making food choices for children, or guiding them to make their own healthy choices, be aware of food allergies and choking hazards for younger children. Many daycare centers, preschools and schools are nut-free, so be sure to keep that in mind when packing school lunches.

Here are some ideas for lunch box meals:

  • Mini bagels with pizza sauce and cheese or peanut butter (soy nut butter or sunflower seed butter are good substitutes if your child's school is nut-free), melon pieces
  • Mild salsa and chips, red and green pepper sticks, cheese sticks, cut grapes
  • Bran muffins, small yogurt, strawberries
  • Soup in a thermos, cantaloupe pieces
  • Tortilla wrapped around cheese sticks, cucumber sticks and dip
  • Hummus on pita bread with sprouts, carrot sticks, blueberries
  • Cheese and apple slices on cinnamon raisin bread, yogurt
  • Turkey cubes, crackers and cheese, apple slices
  • Mini-rice cakes with cream cheese, broccoli, cheese chunks
  • Cream cheese on banana bread or pita, yogurt, peaches
  • Soup in a thermos, crackers and cheese, box of raisins
  • Cheese cubes, applesauce
  • Cream cheese bagel, celery and carrot sticks and dip, orange wedges, plums

Note: Children under 4 years should not be given celery or raw carrot sticks. Substitute cucumber, pepper or zucchini sticks. Many schools are nut-free. Soy nut butter and sunflower seed butter are a healthy alternative to peanut butter.

Kid-Friendly Healthy Snacks

Most of us have a bit of a sweet tooth or crave a salty taste. So do our children. Here are some quick and healthy snack options:

  • Fresh fruit
  • Dried fruit
  • Cheese sticks
  • Yogurt (plain with honey)
  • Baked potato chips
  • Homemade toasted pita bread chips
  • Pretzels
  • Trail mix or raisins
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Nuts or soy nuts (check school's nut policy before packing peanuts or tree nuts)
  • A smattering of chocolate chips
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Graham crackers
  • Pudding cups
  • Jell-O cups
  • Fig bars

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that foods that are round, hard, small, thick, sticky, smooth, or slippery, should not be given to children less than 4 years of age due to their potential choking hazard. If feeding hot dogs or grapes, they should be cut into bite-sized pieces. Bananas should be cut lengthwise into small pieces.

Organization Tips for Packing School Lunches

Finding menu alternatives can be helpful, but actually getting the food packed and out-the-door can be the real challenge for busy parents. Here are some lunchbox organization tips.

  • Plan you children's weekly lunch menu prior to food shopping. Make a shopping list for what you'll need before heading to the grocery store.
  • Bring your children food shopping with you and have them use the shopping list to find and mark off items.
  • Invest some time cutting all the fruit and vegetables for the week. Refrigerate in individual serving bags. Avoid pre-cutting apples, pears and bananas that turn brown easily.
  • Making lunch the night before really is helpful. Try preparing your child’s lunch after dinner when the kitchen is already a mess. Put the whole lunch box in the refrigerator. In the morning, grab and go!
  • School-age children can make their own lunches. Remember to do a quick lunch check, just to make sure they put food in there.

Other Items to Pack in Children's Lunchboxes

  • School-age children don’t always have a chance to wash their hands before lunch, so throw in a wipe.
  • All children, except infants, need a napkin, and who doesn’t enjoy colorful party napkins? Use your leftover birthday or holiday napkins as a lunchbox treat.
  • Add a lunch box note or a picture for your pre-reader. Pre-readers enjoy a letter, shape or color of the day drawn on an index card. You can also cut out magazine pictures. Lunch box notes can include words of encouragement, “I know you’ll do great on your spelling test,” or reminders, “Pick you up for karate after-school,” or simple love notes, “You’re a great kid!”
  • A photo taped inside the lunch box also can bring a smile to your child's face. Remember to drop in a photo your child can “put his fingerprints all over.”

For more ideas about healthy lunches that won't get traded away, just ask the experts to help you - your children! You may be pleasantly surprised.

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