As a stay-at-home parent, lunch has always been the hardest meal to make for my kids. They rarely want leftovers, my personal default, and it’s financially impossible to go to restaurants every day. Most of the time, they eat sandwiches—PB&J as often as they can, and turkey or ham when I insist on something different for variety’s sake.
But as my kids have begun first grade and their first in-person schooling experience, I want them to have something healthier and more filling. After all, studies suggest that bad nutrition and hunger are connected to poor grades and decreased cognitive performance. And for parents it’s not only a matter of caring—research shows that despite our best intentions, many packed lunches don’t have as many essential nutrients as those provided by the National School Lunch program.
Considering how busy our day-to-day life can get, fixing nutritious meals for our kids is easier said than done, so we spoke to some experts for advice on how to make it happen.
Prep in advance
Most mornings, I don’t have time to make anything more than a sandwich. They’re fast, easy, and require essentially no thought or real work to put together.
Time in the morning is always at a premium, so Rachel Rothman, a pediatric dietitian and feeding expert out of San Diego, recommends prepping lunches in advance to save time and reduce stress when you’re just starting your day.
“Chop and wash fruits and vegetables you’ll use later, and batch-cook protein and carbs so they are available throughout the week,” she says.
If you make a weekly lunch calendar, you can maximize your use of this prep time, and reduce the number of days you just give up, and fill lunchboxes with a PB&J and a bag of chips.
Prepping lunches in advance for summer camp was a huge help for my wife and I. Sunday night, we made fresh fruit salad and a pasta salad with the kids’ favorite vegetables and dressing that we could just scoop out during the week. My children also love roll-ups—lunch meat rolled around cheese and veggie slices like cucumbers or carrots, which are easy to batch out in advance.
Get your kids involved
Prepping meals also creates opportunities for your kids to get involved in making their own lunches, says Samantha Barnes, a mom, former teacher, and founder of Raddish Kids, a subscription service that teaches kids how to cook. With guidance, tykes as young as kindergarten can help with packing lunches, and if you have a picky eater at home, being involved in food prep is a great way to help them broaden their horizons.
According to Trista Best, a registered dietician at Balance One Supplements, kids are also more likely to actually eat their lunch if they feel some ownership over the meal. “A child that is allowed to be involved in the planning, preparation, and cooking process may be more inclined to sit and enjoy the meal they’ve helped create,” she says. That involvement also helps them learn important life lessons about how to prepare nutritionally balanced meals.
Kids can help with all kinds of tasks—from shopping to washing fruits and vegetables, to spooning out dips, and perhaps most importantly, picking what healthy meals they want to eat that week. My kids love to help chop fruit, for example—we even bought them plastic kids’ knives so they can lend a hand.
Create healthy “lunchables”
A lot of people we talked to recommended the idea of a compartmentalized, bento box-style lunch.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, registered dietician and author of The Superfood Swap, says “each section of the bento box can be a reminder to fill it with a specific food group so that they are always balanced and interesting.”
The divided sections of the box help you and your kids to remember to maximize a mPenalizing kids for school lunch debt can harm their mental healthal’s nutritional benefits by always including one protein, whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and some kind of fat. The process of putting these lunches together can also be fun—kids can select their own options from what’s available, and you can even create food themes for special days.
You can get a bento box like the colorful OmieBox, if you want, but you definitely don’t have to. You can just include small bags or containers with each of the food groups in whatever lunchbox you have at home.
Keep it simple and quick
While lunchtimes are different district by district, a common complaint among parents and students is short lunchtimes. According to the CDC, about half of US school districts don’t have policies requiring at least twenty minutes for students to eat lunch. This means that your kids may be crunched for time. My kids’ number one complaint about the first week of school, for instance, has been that they don’t have enough time to eat.
To help them get the most out of their lunch, keep the meals simple and easy to eat. No difficult-to-open packages, meals with complex assembly, or anything small and intricate.
Some simple suggestions that can keep lunch quick and healthy include:
- Chopped veggies and hummus
- Lunch-meat roll-ups with cheese and cucumbers
- Whole-wheat wraps
- Chopped fruit
- Trail mix
Packing a nutritious, fast, and filling lunch for our kids every day seems daunting. But with a little bit of planning, we can keep them well-fed and ready to learn at all times.
And remember—you don’t necessarily have to pack them a lunch every day. Give yourself, and them, a break once in a while. Sometimes the school’s Taco Tuesday offering is the best lunch option for everyone.