The Healthy School Lunchbox

By Stacey Stein

Energize your kids for the school day with simple and nutritious lunches.

Come September, parents of school-aged children everywhere will be trying to figure out what to pack in their kids’ lunchboxes for the next 10 months.

While it may be tempting to resort to quick and easy meals consisting of things like processed deli meats and packaged snacks, registered dietitian Shannon Crocker cautions parents against this.

“Kids need healthy foods to nourish their minds and bodies,” she says, adding that unhealthy lunch choices and sugar-laden snacks can impede learning and negatively impact a child’s behaviour at school. “A well-nourished mind is a mind that’s ready to learn.”

The good news is that packing healthy lunches and including wholesome snacks for your children doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming.

“As soon as the kids are in bed I prepare as much as I can, if not the entire lunch, for the next day,” says Marni Herskovits, a mom of two. “It takes me maybe 10 minutes tops.”

A typical lunch for her 5½-year-old daughter Leia includes a main dish along with two sides and two snacks.

Leftovers from dinner are a lunchbox staple. Chicken for dinner? Herskovits will chop up the leftovers and throw them in a sandwich with a bit of mayo. Leftover pasta also makes for a great lunch and can be heated the next day and kept warm in a thermos.

Side dishes can be anything from a hard-boiled egg to a cheese string, while snacks are typically fruit – anything from blueberries and strawberries to grapes, apricots, apples or cherries. Herskovits washes the fruit and packs it the night before so it’s ready to go.

Mom of two Anika Juzda has her daughter’s lunches down to a science. “I aim for two parts fruit and veg, one part protein, one part complex carbs and one bottle of water,” she says. 

So what does a typical lunch for Amaya, who turns five in October, look like? It could be anything from a hard-boiled egg, salad, rice crackers and watermelon to tuna salad, dried fruit and sunflower seeds, tortilla chips and veggies. Another favourite is sushi, tomato and cucumber salad and dried fruit.

Juzda’s go-to snack is a homemade trail mix that consists of dried cranberries, raisins, sunflower seeds, and a dry organic rice cereal.

For parents looking for new ideas, Crocker suggests the “snack-style” lunch, which ensures kids are getting a wide variety of foods at mealtime. Preparing one is easy – use small reusable containers and pack them with things like cheese cubes, mini whole grain crackers, cucumber slices, baby carrots and different types of fruit. 

Simple homemade dips such as cottage cheese blended with either honey or a little bit of garlic can help encourage kids to eat all their fruits and veggies.

Crocker also urges parents to ditch high-sugar packaged snacks and make their own treats instead, as Juzda does. Healthy options include homemade granola bars, mini banana or carrot muffins, or homemade oatmeal, pumpkin or apple cookies.

“You can whip up a batch of oatmeal cookies or homemade granola bars or mini muffins on the weekend,” says Crocker, who recommends making extra and freezing leftovers. “It’s better for your kids and they’re still going to feel like they got a treat.”

In need of some healthy lunch and snack ideas? Here are a few to try:

• Slather some sunflower seed butter or soy nut butter on a tortilla, drizzle a little bit of honey, add in a chopped banana and cut it up into spirals.

• Use a thermos and expand your lunchtime repertoire. Juzda packs warm lunches such as lentil stew and mild curry over rice, while Herskovits combines chick peas with tomato sauce, corn niblets and black beans.

• If your child loves sandwiches, Crocker suggests keeping things interesting by switching up the bread. Trying using whole wheat pita, tortillas or mini buns for some variety.

• Make your own trail mix by combining things like whole grain dried cereals, dried fruits, popcorn and even a few unsalted mini pretzels. 

• Single serve cottage cheese is not only a simple and healthy snack, it’s also packed with protein. Perfect for fueling your kids with energy to get them through the school day!  

• Make extra roasted chicken, roasted beef or turkey breast for dinner and use that for sandwiches instead of processed deli meats.

• Make your own homemade dips for fruit, veggies or whole grain crackers. Guacamole (mashed up avocado with lime or lemon juice, tomato and onion) is an easy and nutritious dip.

• Peeling and chopping up fruit will help ensure it gets eaten. Try apple slices with cinnamon – it’s a hit with many kids.

• Try a Mexican-style lunch: make a quesadilla with chicken or black beans, veggies, cheese and some sour cream, grill it the night before, wrap it and store it in the fridge for the next day. Check out these two delicious quesadilla recipes: Prairie Cheesesteak Quesadillas and Mediterranean Quesadillas

• It may not qualify as a lunch or snack item, but Crocker reminds parents to send kids to school with at least two drinks so they’re hydrated throughout the day. Water and milk are best for your child – try to steer clear of juices, which are usually loaded with sugar. You can try Lacteeze for lactose-intolerant children, which will give them the calcium and vitamin D they need.


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