Why is packing lunch such a chore for so many parents?
Whether you pack one because you don’t want your child to eat the school lunch every day, or because there is no other option, it eats up precious time, and not just in the mornings.
“Parents will be shocked to learn this, but the average parent spends nearly 700+ hours a year buying and preparing lunches for their kids,” says Meghan Carreau, co-founder of Tuckrbox, the first farm-to- lunchbox meal delivery service. (Note: They’re one of the vendors at our family food festival, One More Bite, on Sunday.)
And yet, putting thought into a balanced meal can really help your child’s day. As Laura Corrin, a nutrition educator who freelances at the nutrition nonprofit Fan4Kids, explains, “The top benefit [of a healthy lunch] is the correlation between food and mood. When kids eat more veggies and fruits, I notice an immediate improvement in their moods, attentiveness, focus and attitude.”
You don’t need to make lunch an Instagram sensation. Just steal some ideas from your favorite feeds or from the images below. We drew inspiration from experts across NYC and online, including a nutritionist, a chef, a registered dietician, bloggers and cooking instructors to wrangle up a month of nutritious school lunches.
Their tips are sure to surprise, delight, and encourage your children to eat (almost) every bite.
Bento Box Lunches
Bento boxes have changed the way that parents pack lunches. With their little compartments, they are a great choice for giving a variety of snacks, finger foods, and healthy main courses. Meghan Carreau, co-founder of Tuckrbox, says “Kids love bento box lunches because it keeps them highly engaged through lunch period. They do a better job of finishing more of their meal when they are served bento style.”
There are so many bento options on the market, it’s hard to decide which one to get. Registered dietitian and nutrition consultant Samantha Rigoli says her favorites are The Planet Box or the Lunch Bot. “My kids prefer small bits of various foods rather than just one sandwich and fruit,” she says.
Jaclyn Carter, founder of Love Jac and a bento box lover who tags her creations on Instagram #lovejaclunchboxes, recommends Easy Lunch Boxes as her go-to box. “They have only three sections, are dishwasher safe, and aren’t too expensive.” They aren’t leak proof, but they have easy to open lids that little hands can easily manipulate.
DAY 1: Spanakopita, cream cheese on sprouted bread, veggie snacks, dates, mandarin orange slices and cheese stick.
Pro Tip: Samantha Rigoli, registered dietitian and nutrition consultant: “Kids have very short lunch periods here in New York (like 15-20 minutes) so they often don’t have time for much. Make sure there are plenty of savory foods, not just fruits and yogurt because they will be starving by the end of the day when their blood sugar drops.”
DAY 2: Cream cheese and jelly on a mini bagel, inner peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt squisher, trail mix, mango (and optional googly eyes).
PRO TIP: Jaclyn Carter, Love Jac: “I love a mini-bagel. It’s a smaller size and more manageable.”
DAY 3: Soba noodles with sesame seeds and seaweed, cheese squares, cucumber, egg, peach and little toasted lima beans. Plus plastic toothpicks (made just for bentos), paper bears and a sweet lunch note.
Pro Tip: If you love the idea of writing personalized notes, but don’t have the time (or the prose), get pre-made lunch notes that you can just drop in every day.
DAY 4: Cream cheese and jelly on a mini bagel, watermelon and cantaloupe fruit kabobs, blueberries, blackberries, sausage, tomatoes.
PRO TIP: Jaclyn Carter, Love Jac: “I often use lollipop sticks to make fruit or cheese kabobs. [Also] anytime I see some kind of “mini fork” or “mini spoon” I buy it, because my daughter gets a kick out of it.”
DAY 5: Oat flour pancakes, egg, fruit, green beans and granola bites, edible flower and an eyeball thrown in. Why not?
PRO TIP: Think outside of the lunch meal, and pack in breakfast items like pancakes, waffles or an egg sandwich. Jaclyn Carter suggests “If you’re into technology LaLaLunchbox has a great app to help you (or your child) build their lunchbox ahead of time.”
Leftover Lunches and Thermos Lunches
An easy way to take the stress out of packing lunches is to repurpose your dinner from the night before. Using leftovers saves time and money, but also allows you to get a little more creative. Typically you’ll want to throw them in a thermos, a fantastic way to send nutrient-dense lunches like soups or pastas. Beyond just leftovers, these containers are also great for sending veggies (so the butter stays melted). Says nutrition educator, Laura Corrin, “When kids know that broccoli is a superfood that actually fights disease and prevents them from getting the flu, they really do get more intrigued to eat them.”
To make sure the contents don’t cool down, pour boiling water into the thermos, dump it out, and whatever meal you put inside will stay warm for hours. Who says hot lunch has to come from the cafeteria?
DAY 6: Leftover tacos.
PRO TIP: Michelle Spiegel, chef: “It drives me crazy that my son doesn’t eat what I send, even if I think he’ll like it. The exceptions are when I make him simple pasta dishes or tacos. For the tacos, I get sprouted corn tortillas, and keep in the freezer. In the a.m., I put all together: I put the cheese and filling, usually small pieces of steak and beans, and place in the toaster. I toast two of these tacos up until golden and crispy and then quickly fold them, pack them in tin foil and that’s it. The meat is cooked to a crisp as is the cheese and beans. It usually stays crunchy until lunch.”
DAY 7: Leftover polenta served with blanched vegetables, dried fruit, and little tomatoes. Polenta can also be broiled into these squares, for snacks.
PRO TIP: Ronna Welsh, founder of the improvisational home cooking school, Purple Kale Kitchenworks: “My kids and I share a commitment that I will make them what they want for lunch–and they always want something warm–if they promise to eat it for the week. On the weekend, I’ll make a big batch of polenta that I quickly reheat in individual portions each morning (with cream or stock, butter, and cheese). It stays warm in their thermoses, is comforting, and fills their bellies. I count on additional items for nutrition–blanched vegetables, dried fruit, little tomatoes. And when the polenta has run its course for lunch, they still might eat it for breakfast with maple syrup or, cut into squares and broiled, for a snack.”
DAY 8: Mac & Cheese & Peas
Pro Tip: Nutritionist and personal trainer Aynsley Kirshenbaum: “A schedule helps us a LOT. Every Tuesday I teach a fitness class at 5:30pm, so their dad makes them mac and cheese and peas for dinner. So we know that every Tuesday night is planned out and that the leftovers go into the Wednesday lunch. I think a key is having a mix of familiar and new. We use mac and cheese as a vehicle for veggies.”
DAY 9: Any soup with carrots, celery, tomatoes and ranch dressing (Momables has many free recipes and meal plans you can subscribe to for inspiration).
PRO TIP: Jaclyn Carter, Love Jac: “Try different dips to get them to eat their veggies. If I pack ranch dressing my daughter will eat all her carrots. If I don’t, she won’t eat any…so I pack ranch every time I pack carrots.”
DAY 10: Leftover turkey chili in a thermos with shredded cheddar on top, a chunk of fresh bread and an apple.
PRO TIP: Nutrition educator Laura Corrin: “Have it become a ritual at night. Say, let’s pack your lunch, you pick the food. We need a veggie, a fruit, protein, etc. This empowers your kids and makes them feel good about making healthy choices.”
DAY 11: Spaghetti and meatballs and broccoli. A gluten-free, vegetarian option could be olive oil, brown rice pasta, peas and pecorino cheese.
PRO TIP: Michelle Spiegel, chef: “When I pack lunch, I make just the essentials: One main thing that I think my son will eat. I don’t pad with excess fruit, chips, veg, etc. Main course and that’s it. I find that [my son] Azra eats only one thing anyway and it’s easier if I control what that is.”
DAY 12: Leftover shepherd’s pie with sweet potato topping.
PRO TIP: We asked a friend to name a few of the gluten-free lunches she packs for her son, and a thermos full of leftover shepherd’s pie–either with sweet potatoes or white potatoes–topped the list. It’s not a dish that instantly comes to mind, and yet, lots of kids love the comforting combination of mashed potatoes and meat. It doesn’t hurt that there are diced veggies in the mix.
Creative Sandwiches and Dips
Is there such a thing as creative sandwiches? The answer is yes, as long as you think out of the (bread) box. “Sandwiches are not big in my house,” says Laura Corrin. “We like the deconstructed sammy. Think of everything you like in your sandwich and just have that inside your lunch. This way, you can make it a sandwich if you want or just eat it all separately. We often substitute whole grain bread for whole grain crackers, whole grain pita and/or tortilla wraps too.”
A dip is another great vehicle for proteins and veggies, minus the bread.
DAY 13: Mini pizzas, carrot sticks and hummus, melon cubes by Tuckrbox
PRO TIP: Don’t limit yourself to the basic bread sandwich. “We make our mini pizzas by first roasting cauliflower and then mixing it into a savory pizza dough for the crusts,” says Megan Carreau of Tuckbox. “We then bake the crusts and add our homemade sauce, and top it off with low-fat mozzarella and turkey pepperoni. Both the kids and parents absolutely love them!” No time for homemade cauliflower crusts? Tuckrbox delivers (and currently the service is half off your first week.)
DAY 14: Spinach and monterey jack quesadilla, wrapped in tinfoil to stay warm, bell peppers sliced, pineapple cubes
PRO TIP: Nutrition educator and consultant, Laura Corrin: “For me, a good balanced lunch includes a protein, a vegetable, a fruit, a little dairy and sometimes a grain. I try to vary the textures for my child as well, as that has helped with making sure he enjoys eating it.”
DAY 15: Ham, cheese and lettuce or turkey, kale and hummus wraps, cut into 1-inch sections to make them bite-sized and fun.
PRO TIP: Meghann Careau, Tuckrbox: “There are tons of ways to make sandwiches creative and fun. You can use your dinner leftovers and create veggie spreads, or mix and match your favorite fall flavors to add something unexpected, like pumpkin or apple slices for punch.”
DAY 16: Pumpkin man ham sandwich with mandarin orange head, raisin buttons and carrot chips for hands.
PRO TIP: Jaclyn Carter, Love Jac: “The best way to make it creative is to cut it into a fun shape. And honestly, kids don’t need it to be crazy detailed, a simple heart cookie cutter or easy cut triangles make it different. And different is fun!”
DAY 17: Grilled chicken slices and veggie kabob (bell peppers, cherry tomato, broccoli) with quick tzatziki (Greek yogurt, cucumbers, lemon juice and a sprinkle of garlic powder) for dipping, mixed berry fruit salad.
PRO TIP: Elena Tedeschi, chef and culinary instructor/founder of Well Rooted Kitchen: “Kids seem to love things on a stick and dips! I think it has a lot to do with the feeling of control they get from dipping. Also, don’t be afraid of flavors. I’ve found that the sooner you introduce herbs and spices ( I’m not talking hot chili, but things like garlic, sweet paprika, cinnamon, and ginger) the better the chances they will like them!”
Lunches For Picky Eaters
The hardest part of packing lunch is when you have picky eaters to contend with. All kids have some foods they just will not put in their mouth, and some kids have a lot of foods they won’t touch. “Kids need to be presented with new food items on average four to five times before they are familiar with the new taste and texture,” says Meghann Carreau of Tuckrbox. But at school, your best attempt to expand their food horizons can easily be thrown in the trash.
“One of the top ways to improve on a picky eater is to do a family food tasting,” says Laura Corrin. “Pick a day and offer a vegetable tasting with five new veggies they have never tried. Make it fun like a game. Make a rule that they must taste, chew and swallow every food item at least once.” Also, remember that their taste buds change, and they won’t always want to eat plain pasta with butter. “Be patient with yourself and your kids,” reminds Corrin. “Creating a healthier lifestyle sometimes happens slowly, but it really does happen with consistency and empowering kids with choices.”
And when you just can’t bear to have another lunch returned, uneaten? Give them what they’ll eat!
PRO TIP: Shana Liebman, writer of the funny home-cooking blog, Monsters vs. Dinner: “I’ve tried every variation of macaroni and cheese and then some. But this recipe is a winner and I make a ton (either in the instant pot or on the stove), refrigerate it and then heat it up in the morning with a splash of milk and stuff it into a Star Wars thermos.”
DAY 19: Hardboiled egg, two mandarin oranges, cheese stick and apple carrot squeezy.
PRO TIP: Aynsley Kirshenbaum, nutritionist: “Know what your kid(s) will and won’t eat and try not to prove anything or get them to try new things while at school. Pack them what they’ll eat, have it be only three or four things and don’t beat yourself up.”
DAY 20: Soynut butter and grape jelly on soft wheat bread; string-cheese, applesauce cup or Fage yogurt
PRO TIP: Shana Liebman, Monsters vs. Dinner: “This is my go-to for my 8-year-old who ate only plain yogurt for a year, but both of my kids love soynut butter—a surprisingly underappreciated school lunch option. We ate the brand I.M. Healthy for years before they went bankrupt and now like WowButter—it’s a great alternative for picky kids at nut-free schools. (Wait isn’t that every child?) The other components are easy and healthy throw-ins that usually don’t get thrown out.”