Packing healthy school lunches will not only give you the opportunity to positively contribute to the nutrients your children are eating, but can also help save money. I always tell my clients that I want to equip them with the knowledge to be their own dietitians so they are empowered to make healthy choices in line with their goals.
When I pack my daughter’s lunch for pre-school, I consider three important factors.
1. Include a variety of meal choices
I want to keep it as healthy as possible, but also prevent boredom through repetition. Offering diverse options during the week is also beneficial because it helps ensure your child is getting a variety of nutrients, too. Instead of a turkey sandwich every day, try turkey and cheese pinwheels using a tortilla. A batch of shredded chicken can make chicken salad, wraps and sandwiches or even soup or chili stored in a thermos.
Branch out with fruits and vegetables, rotating the types of produce you purchase. For other lunchbox snacks, make homemade trail mix with healthy nuts, seeds, dried fruit and popcorn.
2. Plan/prep meals in advance
Equip yourself with proper toolkit of a lunchbox, ice packs, storage containers and a thermos.
You must set aside time to grocery shop and portion and pack healthy lunches. Otherwise you are throwing random items in a bag as your child runs out the door. For some parents, pre-packing lunches for multiple days at one time may be helpful. Everyone’s situation is different, so decide what will help you and your family successfully pack well thought-out, balanced lunches.
Depending on the age of your children, consider involving them in some way. For younger children, like my almost 3-year-old, this may mean letting them pick out a fruit and veggies at the grocery store for the week, or it could be that your child helps make wraps or a healthy soup or chili. Involving them gives them some independence and allows them to make guided healthy choices.
3. Balance nutrients and food groups
We want our children to be full and satisfied and their energy levels to be balanced throughout the school day. My favorite tip is to always remember to include the “two p’s” – protein and produce.
This is so important because the protein really helps keep us full and the produce will provide key nutrients, such as fiber and vitamins and minerals that can also help keep us feeling full and satisfied.
Protein ideas include: Greek yogurt, low-fat cheese sticks, nut butter or sunflower butter, beans, nuts/seeds, boiled eggs, low-sodium turkey or chicken, and shredded chicken.
Finally, it’s okay to include a treat in their lunchbox too. Remember we are trying to keep them engaged and interested in our healthy packed lunches. You can provide healthier and more portion-controlled versions of treats – some I like are 100 percent fruit gummies/fruit leather, granola bars that are low in added sugar, homemade snacks, or a quick fruit smoothie.
Sara Parrish is a wellness dietitian with New Hanover Regional Medical Center.