Whipping up creative and nutritious meals that will please the picky little ones can be tough—especially when they see alluring vending machine treats and less-than-healthy snacks in other kids’ lunchboxes. To help take the stress out of your back-to-school packing, we had diet experts fork over their creative lunchtime ideas. Read on to learn how to piece together exciting and healthy lunchbox meals for your little one all year long. And be sure to steer clear of packaged products that are hiding harmful additives, which we reveal in our report on the 13 Scary Ingredients in Your Kid’s Lunch Box, Exposed!
“As a mom to three boys under the age of 7, I have to pack three school lunches daily. Sure, I’m always thinking about nutrition, but I’m also thinking about balance and fun. With that in mind, banana roll-ups are one of my go-tos. Simply take a whole-wheat tortilla, spread a thin layer of nut or seed butter over it, and then place an entire peeled banana on one end. Sprinkle the tortilla with cinnamon and drizzle it with a bit of honey. Then, roll it up into a log and slice it into 1-inch pieces. My kids love anything they can eat with their fingers, and I love that this meal is loaded with filling fiber, protein and heart-healthy fats.” — Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition NYC
“Use a bento box with five different compartments to give your child a healthy and fun lunchtime taco fiesta. Meal components might include: corn tortillas, grilled chicken, vitamin-packed bell peppers, filling black beans, guacamole and watermelon, a sweet fruit almost every kid loves.” — Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, owner Family. Food. Fiesta.
Olives & Sugar Snap Peas
“Children often have a shortfall of vegetables in their diet. The best way to boost their intake? At lunchtime, when they’re good and hungry. Sugar snap peas are crisp and sweet, and many kids love them. Place them in a small container with some hummus or dipping sauce to make them even more appealing. Olives are another tasty vegetable to pack. Most kids adore them because they can put them on their fingers as they eat them — it’s a real cafeteria party trick!” — Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RDN, FAND, a Chicago-area registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant
Soups and Sides
“If your child is anti-sandwich, pack a hearty lentil soup or turkey chili in a thermos. Personally, we’re fans of Black+Blum’s Thermo Pot. Pair the soup with sugar snap peas and Eat This-approved chips to round out the meal.” — Lauren Slayton, MS RD and Carolyn Brown, MS RD of Foodtrainers
Organic Turkey & Cheese Roll Ups
“I’ll often make my boys a wrap with cheese and homemade, slow-cooked sliced turkey. To make it yourself, place a slice of turkey, a slice of muenster cheese and either a carrot or celery stick on a small whole-wheat tortilla. Then, roll it up and cut it in half. I’ll pack two of these with a side of hummus and a few whole-wheat pretzels or pickles. My kids love this lunch, and I’m happy knowing they’re eating a meal filled with protein, fat and fiber.” —Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition NYC
“No lunch is complete without a source of protein. Since most kids don’t have the ability to heat up their lunch, I always include a source that can be eaten cold, like hard-boiled eggs, rolled turkey breast, cheese cubes and shrimp with a side of cocktail sauce.” — Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD
For more protein ideas, don’t miss these 26 Foods With More Protein Than an Egg!
A Healthy Smorgasbord
“Lunch can be tricky, even in a dietitian’s household. One of my kids doesn’t like sandwiches, so sometimes I pack her a mix of different items like turkey roll-ups, string cheese, carrots with hummus and strawberries. She gets protein from the turkey and cheese and fiber from the vegetables and fruit. Sometimes she asks for Simply 7 Quinoa Chips, too. They have 9 grams of protein, which makes them a snack I don’t mind sending.” — Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, a registered dietitian with private practices in New York and Connecticut
Milk and Water
“Healthy hydration is critical for staying focused, which is why I pack a mini bottled water and a carton of shelf-stable milk in my kid’s lunch. One cup of milk not only contributes to his protein and hydration needs but also provides other essential nutrients like calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which support the rapid bone growth that occurs throughout childhood and adolescence.” — Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, CSSD
Healthy Twists on Kids’ Classics
“When it comes to healthy food, the prettier the presentation, the more likely your child will be to dig in. We’re not talking major food styling, but we’re big fans of bento-style boxes that have multiple compartments. We suggest filling them up with sprouted bread sandwiches, carrots and bell pepper slices and a treat like Mary’s Gone Crackers, which are made from nutritious ingredients like brown rice, flax, and quinoa.” — Lauren Slayton, MS RD and Carolyn Brown, MS RD of Foodtrainers
Grilled Chicken & Veggie Salad
“I got lucky with one of my girls; she loves salads. If we have chicken the night before, I send her to school with a salad topped with leftover meat, cucumbers, peppers and grape tomatoes. I also throw in whatever vegetable I cooked for dinner. Often it’s roasted broccoli, string beans or artichoke hearts. Lunches can get boring and monotonous, so I do my best to switch it up when I can.” — Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, a registered dietitian with private practices in New York and Connecticut
“To keep my kids sane, I usually pack a few jelly beans, a small homemade cookie or a small piece of dark chocolate as a treat. Since I always pack a healthy ‘main dish,’ I don’t mind giving them small indulgences.” — Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition NYC