“What am I going to eat for lunch today?” This question has a unique ability to stop us in our tracks when asked by our kids. Either the next few minutes are pure chaos as you throw whatever you find in your fridge into your kid’s lunchbox. Or it’s a confident calm as lunch is already packed or decided on.
We’re here to help you tip the scales toward more calm mornings. Here are six areas to explore and 21 practical ideas to try for creating quick and healthy lunches for (and with) your kids. No fuss, no mess, no boredom, no guilt.
1. Tortillas and wraps
They aren’t just for burritos. There are options galore when it comes to creative ways to use tortillas and wraps.
- Layer deli meat like roasted turkey and low-sodium ham atop a whole wheat wrap.
- Fill quesadillas with beans, veggies or meat and a sprinkling of cheese. Cut into triangles. These are delicious hot, cold or room temp.
- Smear peanut butter (or any preferred nut butter) and honey on a tortilla, and spoon some granola on top. After you roll, slice into one-inch pieces to create pinwheels.
Pasta has come a long way in terms of health. There are whole wheat, bean flour and veggie-infused varieties available. From shells to macaroni and penne to rotini, it’s hard to get bored of pasta.
- For an easy meal, use any type of pasta and mix in last night’s leftovers. Veggies or meat, chickpeas, cheese cubes, traditional red sauce, pesto and broccoli, or even a small pat of butter all work well together.
- Or make a big batch of pasta salad at the beginning of the week. For a kid-approved option, try a pizza-inspired pasta salad. Mix pasta, mozzarella or parmesan cheese, chopped turkey pepperoni, halved cherry tomatoes, chopped red onion, a dash of oregano and Italian dressing or a splash of olive oil.
- Pack the dish in a plastic container. If your child prefers warm food, dump it into a thermos right from the microwave.
If you’ve been to the refrigerator section of the grocery store lately, you’ll notice about half of the aisle is yogurt. For good reason—both kids and adults enjoy it, and it’s packed with important nutrients like calcium and protein. Yogurt also works to enhance healthy gut bacteria and helps with digestion, especially the kind with probiotics or live bacteria.
- Pick a yogurt vehicle or style: squeeze out of tubes, Greek varieties, or drinkable kefir. All yogurt options are easy to pack!
- Some yogurts contain a lot of added sugar. A simple rule of thumb is to avoid any yogurt that lists sugar as the first ingredient.
- Pack yogurt add-ins so your kid can make a parfait, granola bowl or “sundae.” Fresh fruit, jam, oats, nuts, honey or granola are tasty topping options.
Not all kids enjoy sandwiches, even though parents enjoy knowing they feel full from them! Worry not: Healthy bars—whether homemade or packaged—can be a part of a nutrient-filled lunch spread.
- On the weekend, make a big batch of some oat-filled, nut-rich, delicious creations that you can slice up and pack for the week. Look for healthy “energy ball” or “homemade granola bar” recipes to get started.
- Low on time or energy? There’s no shame in the “buy pre-made” game. There are many high-quality, convenient options like fig bars, superfood bars and energy balls that can be found at your local store or online.
- As mentioned with the yogurt, keeping added sugars (white sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup and more) to a minimum is best for kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting added sugars to less than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of sugar each day.1 Aim for less than 5-7 grams of added sugar per serving of a granola bar or energy ball.
5. Finger foods
Some of the most filling and nutritious foods are finger-friendly—which naturally can make them more fun for kids. The right combination of smaller snacks can create a powerful lunch.
- Straight from the grocery store, these foods are easy to throw in the lunch box: cheese sticks, cherry tomatoes, berries, grapes, clementines, almonds, cashews and baby carrots.
- Hummus or spreadable cheese wedges are tasty dips for fruits, veggies, pita pieces or crackers.
- For easy protein, look to hard-boiled eggs and roasted chickpeas.
6. Freezer foods
Frozen foods aren’t just options when the cupboards are bare. There are many healthy options that you can pack from the freezer in the morning to be ready for lunch midday.
- Whole wheat mini bagels, pancakes or waffles are yummy any time of day.
- Veggie-filled pizza or baked chicken nuggets—be it store-bought or cooked at home—are a savory delight to pair with a fruit or vegetable.
- Save time by prepping PB&Js ahead of time. Wrap each sandwich in foil, toss them in the freezer, and simply pop one in the lunchbox each morning.
Bonus idea: Buddy up
It isn’t easy keeping up with three meals a day, every day, for a family. So don’t go it alone!
- Buddy up with a neighbor or classmate’s parent. Share ideas and support packing healthy and simple lunches by swapping portions or snapping pics of food.
- Put on some tunes and enlist the help of your partner or a friend to pack with you at night.
- Teach your children how to chop fruits and vegetables carefully, or simply have them package out healthy snacks into reusable bags or containers.
Want more family-friendly meal ideas?
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Updated February 11, 2022