When my oldest first started “real” school, I got an email from the teacher telling me I was sending too many options for my 3 year old to pick from. I would jam his Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box filled with small containers of beautifully cut vegetables and gourmet options for lunch. Typical chef problems. But since then I have really paired back and thought about the science and process of lunch box making.
What is appropriate to send for your child at their age?
What food groups?
And of course, as the parent, what do I have time for?
The last question is extremely important. Is it practical for you to be making lunch every single day? Maybe packing lunch should not be the extra thing to do that you add to your list. Maybe you need to compromise on buying school lunch 3 days and sending lunch from home 2 days a week. Throwing applesauce and a water in a lunchbox does not make a balanced lunch. So find an option that works for the whole family. In our house I do lunch 4 days a week and we do school lunch for 1 day (pizza Fridays!). But I only have one school age child. I’m not sure if my decision will change when my baby gets a little older.
What Food Groups to Send:
All kids lunchboxes should be balanced. It is important to realize that they need balanced nutrition to function at their best throughout the day. When packing lunch for your child you need to keep in mind to build a balanced bunch of options:
What Food To Put Where:
I generally like to put only the lunch items in the lunch box. If your child will be getting an extra snack for later in the day or after school club, make a designated spot where to keep the snack. This way the child knows what food he/she is supposed to be eating during lunch time, and which is for later.
How Much Food To Send:
This will vary depending on the age of the child. Please note- these are approximations. If you find that the lunch boxes are coming back completely empty and your child is coming home famished for more, maybe you start sending more food daily to school.
Ages 2 & 3 year olds –1 core/main item, 1 vegetable and 1 fruit. Here the child will see 3 simple items in their lunchbox. This is very manageable but also necessary for a child doing work all day. Just a plain sandwich is not enough sustenance. Balance is key. In my child’s school they also provide an extra healthy fruit snack during the day, but if your child has a long day and your school does not, feel free to add another easy to eat packaged snack. (i.e. Apple sauce pack, fruit leather, granola bar)
Ages 4- 7 - 1 core/main item, 1 side, 1 vegetable and 1 fruit. This way when the child opens the lunchbox, they see 4 items. This is a very manageable amount of food to eat in their lunch time slot. I also find that I am stuffing the fruit and vegetable containers filled to the top as opposed to the younger children who may not be getting as much. Example- My 3 year old would eat spinach ravioli one day a week. I would send him 5 cooked pieces. But now, as a 5 year old he is eating 8 raviolis in the same container. So not only do you have 4 items in the box, but it is 4 very filling items. On pizza day in school I buy him two slices because I know that even though he won’t finish two he will still be hungry after one. For a child in this age group add 1 extra snack to their backpacks.
Ages 8 and up - For a child in this age group concentrating on how many items isn’t always the right guideline. I would say it is a minimum of 4 items- maximum of 5 items. Having two mains here is very often a good idea- soup and half a sandwich with a fruit and a vegetable, or a full pita sandwich with a veggie burger and sliced avocado inside. Think bigger, think hungrier. Don’t forget to include a fruit or even two in the lunchbox. Try a whole banana and some cut strawberries in a container. I find when planning for a child who is really growing- especially one going through puberty, you need to think of your own appetite. Think big. For a child this age add an extra 2 snacks in their bag for later.
What Food To Pack:
Main/Core Item Options:
Note- If your child is very particular feel free to stick any food in a thermos, otherwise my rule of thumb is if it has melted cheese or if it is a soup then I put it in a thermos.
Van’s organic waffles- you must pair with a protein (like sunflower butter and a small yogurt on the side) but this is a fun way to get kids to eat lunch.
Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Classic Oatmeal with flax and chia individual cups- this is for an older child (probably high school only, but I love this so much I had to include it). You just add hot water and in three minutes you have delicious hearty oatmeal. Alternatively, you can cook steel cut oats at home and send in a thermos for your child to enjoy. I also send a side of raisins with 1 tablespoon of maple syrup to mix in. P.S.- I linked you to amazon to see them but they are usually 2/$4 at your local big box grocery stores. Amazon price is too high in this case.
Vegetable sushi roll- you can buy this the night before. They stay better if they do not contain avocado
4. Other Homemade Options:
Full sized yogurt with smart granola (containing protein, low sugar, high in fiber)
Chopped salad with veggies and a protein- like tuna salad or egg (this is surely geared toward an older child)
Cheese stick (try to find a lightened up version- something with less salt or organic)
Hummus- homemade, store bought, or even Trader Joe’s makes a sesame free version for those schools that have allergy restrictions.
Mary’s Gone Crackers or a half of a fresh roll if you are serving fresh soup
Yogurt- I like the YoBaby brand because of the size and it is full fat. But nowadays there are lots of full fat yogurts to choose from. Giving your child a fat free yogurt doesn’t have much health benefits unless they are older and have a weight problem as specified by a doctor. But a young child can benefit from a healthy amount of fat in their yogurt. Other good brands to look at are Siggi’s or Maple Hill Creamery. Things you want in a yogurt are natural ingredients, a little bit of fat and low sugar content.
Smoothie drinks- Many companies make yogurt or dairy smoothies you can purchase at the market. This can be a great lunchbox item! But be sure to check for protein content and ingredients. Many commercialized companies don’t have any protein in their smoothie drinks and instead have lots of sugar and other nasty ingredients.
Kefir- My family doesn’t go for this but this middle eastern style yogurt drink is super healthy and a great extra option to add to your list.
Blueberries (sliced for small children)
Sliced grapes (always slice grapes lengthwise to avoid a choking hazard- until the child is 21. Ok, I’m slightly overreacting but I’m sticking to it. I have a fear of choking. We will talk about that in another article.)
Vegetables: (I always give a raw crudité type of vegetable option even if there is already vegetable in the main dish- makes for a great snack, and creates good habits.)
Snacks To Purchase:
When purchasing snacks look for items that are non-gmo and organic. An added bonus is when the snack is low in sugar, high in fiber and has some protein. Read ingredients! If you can’t pronounce the ingredients then move on. Simple is best.
With new snacks coming onto the market all the time, it can feel really confusing to figure out which is actually a good option for your family. But when you find the right one, these snacks make your family happy and you feel satisfied to know that you are giving them something nutritional. But sometimes knowing which snacks are actually good, requires a Master’s degree in label reading. I’ve done my due diligence and I’m happy to share my 2 best snack discoveries this school year with you.
Pure Genius Brownie and Blondie Bars- (Soon to be called “Rule Breakers”!) These packaged
treats are divine desserts made from bean flour and non-refined sugar like maple syrup! They are a really BIG treat (2.5 oz each) but only 194 calories. It is packed with protein and fiber and tastes like bakery goodness. We are addicted! Go to their website at http://puregeniusprovisions.com to purchase their products and receive 15% off your order (!!!!) when you use code MYLIFEMYMENU at checkout. Offer valid through December 31, 2016. Follow them on Instagram too @enjoypuregenius
Fresh From the Heart- They make a FULL menu of cookies and treats to choose from. They are made without any refined sugars, gluten, eggs, dairy, hydrogenated oils, margarine, preservatives or artificial flavors. Best part is they taste great! I keep them in the freezer to keep me from eating them all up in one sitting. You can buy their locally in NYC and you can purchase online as well. For a full list of their retail locations go to their website at http://www.freshfromthehearttreats.com . All of our followers will get 10% off any order (!!!!) from their website when you use the code MYLIFEMYMENU at checkout. Offer valid through December 31, 2016. Also follow them on Instagram @freshfromtheheart
Involve and educate your children about these changes that you are looking to implement. Explain why the changes are beneficial to their bodies and health. Why do we eat healthy food? Why do we treat our bodies well? Have dynamic conversations to get their minds moving and get them participating. Teach them the food they put in is the energy and the moods they get out of their bodies.
Ask your child what they want to eat. I always give them options when making lunch. They should know what they are getting in their lunchbox before getting to school. When it is time to prepare lunchboxes, involve your child. Offer them 2 healthy choices to choose from. Either choice they pick, will be something healthy. This way, it is something they want to eat and something you want to serve them.
Remember that you are the head of the household- not the child. If you make 3 dinners and allow them to tell you what THEY want for dinner, then they are running the show. Sometimes too many options is not a good thing. My pediatrician said something last year to my child that really resonated. He said that now that he was 4 years old, he would have to take 4 bites of a new food to know whether or not he likes the item. This is a rule we stick by in our house. If after 4 bites he still doesn’t like something, we don’t push him anymore for that day. My technique would be to reintroduce the food at a later point.
Get creative- try to find interesting ways to spice it up. Add cute notes, stickers, or toys in their lunchbox.
If you are having trouble coming up with your own dinner menu, you can always mimic what the school is offering for lunch the next day. For example, If Tuesday is Mac and Cheese in school, then maybe make it for dinner Monday night, and then you can portion it into containers for Tuesday’s lunchboxes. This way, your child gets to eat a homemade (hopefully healthier) version of what is being served to the other kids in school that day and they don’t feel left out.
Do not change all of the snacks in your house at one time. Try making one change at a time.
My Favorite Instagram Feeds to Follow for Inspirational Kids Nutrition
@weelicious - Catherine McCord has an amazing Instagram feed filled with smoothie inspiration along with smoothie recipes, lunchboxes and photos of her kids and every day menus. Her Insta Stories are like watching mini reality shows filled with amazing kid friendly recipes. I tune in every day for each update. She has great style!! Check her out.
@buddhabowlsandburpees - Michelle Gindi, certified health coach and wellness blogger, was part of the inspiration for this article! Her vegan Instagram feed is filled with tips and tricks to get you better organized and prepped for family dinners. If anyone can get vegetables into your kid's mouth - it's her!! Check her out.
@sylina_lunches - She is the queen of lunchboxes. These are the most creative bento boxes you have ever seen filled with rice paper rolls, Darth Vader sandwich shapes and dragon fruit balls. She tops my list as the gold medal winner of the lunchbox olympics. Did i mention she puts cute notes in her lunchboxes? Check her out.
@organicfoodforkids - Marta has a beautiful and clean Instagram feed filled with wholesome recipes right in her posts that are perfect for tots and young children. Her use of simple and natural ingredients, combined with her gorgeous photography, will have you screen shotting and liking her every post.