It doesn’t take long in the school year for kids to get tired of sandwiches and chips for lunch every day. And as a parent, you’re probably just as sick of packing those items, too. But with a full plate and little time to get creative in the kitchen on weekdays, what’s a busy parent to do?
Don’t worry. Spicing up your kids’ lunches doesn’t mean spending hours in the kitchen every morning. You can still pack creative, nutritious options to break up the monotony of PB&Js.
Adding variety to your children’s lunches isn’t just interesting, either. It can also be nutritious. Serving your kids a wide variety of meals helps to ensure that their diets contain a mix of nutrients.
Here’s a roundup of lunchbox ideas that are both easy and delicious.
Baked Chicken Strips
You might think of chicken strips as a warm food, but they can be eaten cold, too. It’s much easier to pack cold strips for lunch than warm ones. An ice pack will keep the strips safe until lunchtime.
To prepare chicken for a lunch box, bake or air fry it with simple seasonings, such as salt and pepper. Cool the chicken in the fridge overnight, and then slice it into strips. Consider adding leak-proof containers with dipping sauces, like barbecue sauce, honey mustard and ranch dressing. You could even branch out a little with homemade sauces that use extra veggies to slip in a few more nutrients.
If your kids are sandwich fans, stuff the chicken and some torn lettuce into a whole wheat pita instead.
For kids who love finger foods, try roasted chickpeas. Your kids may enjoy munching on these crunchy morsels like chips — snacking on them right out of a zip-top baggie. To incorporate chickpeas in a more elaborate dish, sprinkle some over the top of a green salad or toss with some of their favorite veggies and a drizzle of dressing.
To roast chickpeas, drizzle them with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Place them on a tray in a 425-degree oven. It will take 20 to 30 minutes for them to get crispy.
Additional seasonings can be added after baking. Older kids may enjoy experimenting with the flavor profile. Suggest lemon pepper, paprika or Parmesan cheese. For the bolder eaters, try a spicier or more adventurous blend, like a curry mix.
Pricey cafes sell to-go bistro box lunches, but you don’t have to rely on these prepackaged conveniences. Your teens might enjoy taking a homemade version to school. Arrange the contents in a reusable divided container with a snap-tight lid.
Hard-boiled eggs are a good source of protein, so they can play a starring role in your bistro box. Slice two eggs in half and include a pinch of salt and pepper for sprinkling.
Fill the other compartments with an assortment of fruits and vegetables to round out the meal. Berries, cherry tomatoes and snap peas are good choices. Other box ideas include cheese cubes, whole grain crackers and Parmesan crisps. If you’ve got meat eaters, opt for low-sodium and uncured versions of lunch meat, or add in those sliced chicken breasts we mentioned earlier.
You could even include some seasoned and prepared tofu cubes as a meat alternative that still offers a good source of protein.
Whole Grain Salad
While it’s smart to avoid an abundance of refined carbohydrates, you don’t have to forgo carbs entirely. In fact, your kids need them. They provide brainpower that will help your kids through the school day. When possible, choose whole grains as the source of your kids’ lunchtime carbs.
For example, make pasta salad using whole wheat rotini. After cooling the cooked noodles, stir in low-sodium Italian dressing, Feta crumbles, halved grape tomatoes and diced bell peppers.
Pasta salads could be a good option for pickier eaters, who can choose what to eat and even how to prepare the salad itself. Get input from your kids and incorporate their ideas. They may be more likely to eat food they help prepare themselves.
Spicing up your kids’ lunches doesn’t have to mean forgoing sandwiches altogether. Instead, consider creative whole grain alternatives to standard bread.
Whole wheat thin bagels are fun for kids and may not be as refined carb-heavy as standard sandwich bread. Other bread alternatives include whole grain English muffins and tortillas.
Remember: carbs aren’t a bad thing. Kids need them for energy. But choosing more nutrient-rich carbs can help fuel your kids without overloading them with unnecessary sugar.
Fill the bagels with low-sodium lunch meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes – or anything else that your kids will eat. Older students can easily assemble these sandwiches themselves.
Grains aren’t the only possible source of carbs. Fruits and veggies contain carbohydrates, too. For a grain-free addition to your child’s lunch, try a veggie-filled lettuce wrap.
Start by rinsing and thoroughly drying a large lettuce leaf. Add a thin layer of spreadable cheese. Next, sprinkle on a generous portion of shredded carrots, radishes and zucchini. Gently roll the lettuce to form a handheld wrap.
Guacamole and Chips
Avocados are an excellent source of monounsaturated fats. Your kids may be wary of plain avocados, but turning them into a dip could increase the appeal.
For an easy version of guacamole, mash together one avocado, a handful of diced tomatoes, a sprinkle of salt, and a generous squirt of lime juice. Send along a serving of whole grain tortilla chips for scooping the dip.
The lime juice will help reduce the oxidation that turns avocados brown. Even so, you’ll need to package this dish carefully. Store the guacamole in an airtight container. Before popping on the lid, place a sheet of plastic wrap over the dip. Press it firmly against the guacamole to keep out as much air as possible.
Chia seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids. An easy chia pudding could be a smart way to get those fats into your kids. The basic recipe is four parts milk to one part chia seeds. You can use dairy milk or your choice of plant-based milk. Your kids might also appreciate the addition of vanilla and a sweetener.
Chia pudding needs to rest in the fridge overnight, but it can keep for several days. Whip up a batch on the weekend. Each morning, your child can scoop a portion into a serving-size container. A handful of fresh berries on top will add color and nutrients.
Nuts are a staple ingredient in most trail mixes, but if your school has a no-nut policy, there are workarounds for trail mix. Give your kids a fun mix that includes healthy seeds instead. Sunflower seeds, for example, deliver polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Pumpkin seeds are another variety that your kids might enjoy. They contain omega-6 fatty acids.
You can create homemade trail mix with seeds and other ingredients. Try putting in raisins, dried cranberries and whole grain dry cereal. For extra kid appeal, toss in a few dark chocolate chips, too, or some candy-coated chocolate pieces without artificial dyes and flavors.
Seeds are a choking hazard for kids under age 5, so don’t include them in a preschool lunch. Even for elementary students, consider your child’s mealtime behaviors before sending seeds to school. Safe eating means sitting calmly and chewing slowly. That can be hard for some children in the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria.
Sweet treats can be packed full of good-for-you ingredients. Take fruity muffins, for example. Whether you make yours with blueberries, raspberries or bananas, your kids will get a bit of produce in every bite. For additional nutrition, use whole wheat flour.
You may already have a family-favorite muffin recipe. If not, To Taste offers a basic starter recipe with endless ideas for customization. For young kids, consider the mini-muffin variation. Or, if you don’t have time to portion the batter into individual cups, follow the directions to bake the batter in a loaf pan.
Store-bought yogurt cups are quick, but layered parfaits are more fun. Plus, they’re customizable to your child’s individual tastes and you can cut down on the added sugar of a prepared yogurt cup. And fortunately, it doesn’t take long to throw them together.
In a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid, place a layer of plain or vanilla yogurt. Top it with a layer of fresh fruit and a handful of granola. Repeat the layers until you’ve reached the top. Consider finishing off the dish with a drizzle of honey.
This healthy dessert provides calcium and protein from the yogurt. Plus, the fruit has antioxidants, and the oats have fiber. It’s a nutritious way to top off a well-rounded school lunch.