By Lisa Rhea, with Brenda Carpenter
This week I noticed my Facebook feed filled with cute first day of school pictures and decided to reach out to my sister, Brenda Carpenter, for today’s post. A mother of four, she’s my go-to expert on an important subject for back-to-school — packing a healthy lunch that kids will actually eat.
With school lunch menus ranging from corndogs and pizza to mozzarella sticks and chicken nuggets, it’s easy to see why you’re better off packing your child a meal from home. Not only are school lunches filled with low quality foods, they’re riddled with added sugars and unnecessary fats. Sure, a hot lunch here or there is a great treat for kids, but on a day-to-day basis, they’re much better off eating a packed lunch.
Yes, children can often eat more garbage without becoming overweight, but that’s no reason to let them. Children have the same nutritional needs as adults, just in smaller amounts depending on their size. So like you or me, it’s important they get adequate protein, healthy grains, fruits, vegetables and good fats.
“And to top it off, school lunches here are $2.40 each,” Brenda said. “With four kids, that adds up fast.” With some effort, and a lot of snack size ziplock bags, Brenda can save a lot of money. She recommends hitting Sam’s Club or Costco to buy in bulk as well.
There Are More Options Than Just PB&J
When you’re packing a lunch, according to Brenda, it’s key to find healthy foods the kids will eat and enjoy. But that doesn’t mean you need to rely on less healthy options. There are plenty of kid-approved healthy foods to put in their lunch box.
“While I do peanut butter and jelly some, most of my kid’s meals start with a deli meat sandwich, but that doesn’t mean bologna and mayo on white bread,” Brenda said. “I use lean meat choices such as turkey or ham and put them on whole wheat sandwich thins.”
For her high schooler, Brenda says they work together to make healthy meals, like salads and wraps.
She then includes several nutritious side items, including vegetables and fruits, baked crackers and no-sugar added juice. And instead of a traditional dessert, she uses granola bars – such as the kid’s Cliff bars or Kind bars. Occasionally they get dessert, but homemade treats that aren’t full of extra chemicals.
“Having the kids help shop for food, within guidelines, and help in prepping the lunches is part of it,” Brenda said. The kids are going to eat what they helped pick out, and it “helps teach them about healthy eating and making balanced choices.”
Tired of the same old sandwich? Another go-to in Brenda’s lunch arsenal is pasta salad.
“I can add meat and vegetables and make a nutritious dish the kids enjoy,” Brenda said.
Here’s a list of food options to try in your kid’s lunch box next week:
Deli Meat Sandwiches/Wraps – consider using sandwich thins or whole grain breads with minimal ingredients.
Peanut Butter and Jelly – look for no-sugar added jelly or fruit spreads and natural peanut butter.
Pasta Salad – made with olive oil.
Salads – keep the dressing and croutons separate.
Fruit – grapes, berries, apple slices, clementine oranges all pack well.
Applesauce cups or squeeze packs – look for no-sugar added versions.
Baked crackers – such as Goldfish and Cheez-its.
Cheese sticks or rounds
Greek yogurt – look for low sugar options.
Fruit cups – again, look for no-sugar added versions.
Vegetables – baby carrots, celery, cucumber slices, and pepper slices are good options.
Peanut Butter – it’s sold in individual cups now, for easy packing.
Fruit Strips – Target sells Simply Balanced strips made with all natural ingredients.
Cliff Z-bars pr Cliff mini bars
KIND bars or other granola bars with minimal ingredients.
Trail Mix or Nuts – almonds, peanuts, cashews, etc., but check with your kid’s school policies, some do not allow peanuts/nuts due to allergies.
Juice boxes – 100 percent juice options.
Water – kids need to stay hydrated and water is still the best option.
Packing it Up
When it comes to packing healthy lunches, it’s a give and take. If you have school-aged kids, you know, time is a commodity. As with everything, it’s about balance.
“I know you can do all organic and make everything from scratch and probably make better lunches than this, but this is what works for me,” Brenda said. “Some kids eat a lot of processed junk. To me, this is a good balance of convenience and healthy eating.”
One good rule of thumb to follow, if you don’t think it’s healthy enough for you to eat, don’t feed it to your kids.
What are you packing for your kids? Have great healthy option we missed? Please share in the comments here or on our Facebook page.