Back to School Lunchbox Ideas and Tips – Part 2

Well, after reading Part 1 I hope you all have some sort of container or lunchbox for your kids to transport all the yummy nutritious food you are about to make. Today we are going to talk about some general tips and ideas for basic lunchbox packing and some ideas for grocery shopping and prepping certain foods ahead of the start of a crazy week so you can have one or two more sips of coffee in the mornings. I’m all about doing anything that allows me to sit for one or two extra minutes with my hot cup of joe.

Tips & Ideas for Better & Easier Lunchbox Packing!

I want to open this post with a statement that might sound surprising to you. School lunches for kids DO NOT have to be this beautiful, amazing, every-day-is-different creation. If you’ve seen my Instagram feed (@therealisticlunchbox) or Facebook group (The Realistic Lunchbox) you might think I promote that philosophy a bit, but I post a lot of variety to give you new ideas and cater to different kid’s dietary needs and tastes. If you’ve found a healthy way to feed your kids at lunchtime and worry that it is a bit repetitive then STOP! Most young kids love repetition and don’t care. So, as long as they are eating healthy foods and there is some variety, then don’t worry. Let’s be realistic here.

So what does a well balanced healthy lunchbox look like?

Let’s break it down….

Veggies

At a meal that is not served at school I recommend a goal of half the plate being filled with veggies. However, at school, sometimes this can be tricky because kids have so little time to eat. Eating raw veggies can take a lot of time! So while I still think veggies should be present in a lunchbox, I’m also conscientious of time limitations. So pack a variety of colors, shapes and types of veggies but don’t overdo it. I am also a big fan of dips like hummus or a yogurt based homemade ranch dip to pair with raw veggies. This is an easy way to add some protein and healthy fats while making veggies more fun to eat. Some ideas for fresh veggies include:

  • Carrots/tri-colored carrots
  • Cucumbers (my kids love the mini crunchers because there is less “mushy” interior)
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell peppers/mini bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Snap peas
  • Kale (chips)

You can also pack veggies in a lunch with soups, stews, or salads. Veggies can be added to sandwiches, pasta or rice or quinoa dishes or even in smoothies! (Check out my recommended Squeasy Gear for smoothies and the Thermos Funtainer for soups and warm food in the prior post, Back to School Lunchbox Ideas and Tips, Part 1.)

Fruit

I have a love-hate relationship with fruit in regards to nutrition for kids. Everyone touts the benefits of fruit, and that’s true, but seriously, what kid doesn’t like fruit? I find this the easiest thing to get most kids to eat. And if you are one of the few parents whose kids don’t really go for the fruit…don’t sweat it. They’re not really missing out on much. They can get plenty of antioxidants from veggies and calories from other foods (with less sugar).

There are some fruits that don’t pack well in a lunchbox. Sometimes raspberries or watermelon (or other fruits with high water content or that are very soft) can get too juicy and squishy. The fruits with the least amount of sugars per serving are the berries, which also have high amounts of antioxidants. Be sure to buy organic for fruits (like berries) that are on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, which are the foods most heavily contaminated with herbicides and pesticides.

So pack the fruit (or don’t) but don’t worry too much about what kinds to pack. Just limit the fruit so your kids will eat some protein and healthy fats.

This list is by no means inclusive of all fruit! I try to buy in season but it’s hard sometimes when the kids just want their favorites!
  • bananas
  • Apples
  • Cantaloupe
  • Clementines
  • Kiwi
  • Grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries (these can sometimes get squishy in lunches)
  • Blueberries
  • Melon
  • Olives
  • Avocado
  • Mango

Protein

Whether you and your kids are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free or have other dietary trends, ALL kids need protein and plenty of it. Make sure there is an adequate source of protein in each meal for your kids. If possible, buy grass-fed, pastured organic meats, dairy and eggs. Also look for lunch meats or preserved meats without nitrates or nitrates. Read more about how and where to buy good quality meat and fish (and what not to buy) at foodrenegade.com and foodbabe.com. Or make your own lunch meats, read more at thenourishinggourmet.com.

Here are some ideas for protein sources:

  • Cheese/cheese sticks/cheese stick wrapped in salami or ham
  • Cream cheese/cream cheese and salmon/cream cheese and cucumber sandwich (on sprouted whole grain bread or between whole grain crackers like a sandwich)
  • Banana and nut butter (chocolate hazelnut/almond/cashew/sunbutter/peanut butter/etc) on a sprouted whole grain tortilla (rolled up) or on sprouted whole grain bread
  • Greek yogurt (with honey/maple syrup and/or fruit and/or granola) or as a base to a dip
  • Bacon
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Cottage cheese
  • Salami/ham/turkey/chicken strips/other meats (can be on a sandwich or as a side to crackers and cheese)
  • Mozzarella balls (as a side or on a skewer with other food)
  • Jerky (beef/turkey/salmon/bison)
  • Hummus
  • Roasted chickpeas

Healthy Fats

Fats usually don’t stand alone (unless you are eating a stick of butter or drinking some coconut oil?) They are often packaged safely, protected from oxidation, within whole foods like seeds, nuts and animal meats. Here is a basic list of foods that contain healthy doses of fats for active, growing kids. Don’t fear the fats! Kids (and adults) need fats to grow up healthy, build strong cells, grow smart brains, and by eating a healthy dose of fats with protein and non-refined carbs we will hopefully provide the next generation with a much lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and many other ailments contributed to by diet and lifestyle. Since toxins are stored in fat, choose organic or clean sources. Read more on the truth about different fats and whether they are healthy for you in this article from Harvard.

  • Avocado/guacamole
  • Salmon or tuna (dried/smoked/fresh/canned)
  • Olives
  • Coconut
  • Eggs (egg yolk)
  • Nuts and seeds like pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts and pistachios (also as nut or seed butters)/ muffins or bars containing nuts/seeds)
  • Full Fat yogurt
  • Cheese

General Lunchbox Packing Tips

Keep it Realistic! Our kids will likely have 20 minutes or less to eat their lunches, and that is being generous for some schools. For this reason I recommend:

  • NOT packing foods in multiple containers. One (or two) easy to open containers saves time.
  • Show some love for the veggies but not too much! Packing half a lunchbox of raw veggies that take forever to chew isn’t always the best idea for a limited lunch time. You can always put out a large plate of raw veggies as an appetizer before dinner when the kids are whining for food. (They will also eat more veggies when they are presented first!)
  • Don’t pack things that the kids have to assemble before eating.

Balance. Make sure to pack a well balanced lunch so that your kids can concentrate better at school. When kids are hungry or have fluctuating blood sugar levels from inadequate or poorly balanced meals they show increasing behavior problems, attention probables and can’t retain or focus as well. Does your lunchbox contain a protein source, some fat, veggies and possibly some fruit? Chances are that it’s balanced then. Chips, crackers, bread, etc are all extras in my opinion and those are the easiest things to pack. First focus on the protein, fat and veggies and then fill in the rest as you feel your kid needs.

Visually Appealling. People eat healthier when presented with colorful, vibrant, well presented foods. Try to add color with various veggies and fruits, use accessories like muffin cups or silicone pods to present foods in a more organized way, use fun accessories to jazz up some foods, or use a smaller Lunchbox to make it seem full. Large empty spaces can detract from an otherwise appetizing lunch.

Choice & Challenge. Try to pack most foods that your child loves or really likes so you know they will eat it but also pack a few new foods, foods that they’ve seen other kids eat and are interested in or foods they see at the grocery store that they ask about. While lunch at school isn’t really the best place to present a plate of completely new foods, sometimes it can be fun for them to experience a new food with friends (or they can laugh about it together and wonder what the heck mom/dad packed….)

Don’t Chuck It! Encourage your kids to never throw away their uneaten lunch. This allows you to see what they are eating, or not eating. This can be incredibly helpful information! We went through a period when my Kindergartener was having some behavior and attitude issues at school and home. As I saw his lunchboxes come home I realized that he wasn’t really eating anything, only some veggies (yeah, I know, he’s a bit abnormal in that sense). I was packing a well balanced lunch but he was so focused on talking with his friends and getting to recess that he just wasn’t eating much lunch. We had a couple weeks of sporadic conversation about how our bodies feel based on how and what we eat and he started to make the connection. After that, things went much smoother on the eating lunch front and on the behavior front. Also, if your kids bring home their lunch leftovers they can eat it as an afternoon snack. Less wasted food and you don’t have to prepare an extra snack!

Be Prepared. Prepping a little bit on the weekends can really help reduce the morning chaos. Some people like to make lunchboxes the night before, and some don’t but either way you can prep these foods like these for lunches ahead of time:

  • Boiled eggs
  • Bacon
  • Kale chips
  • Healthy muffins
  • Avocado chocolate balls
  • Granola or energy bars

Grocery Store Tips

Fresh produce and fruit is something you are going to have to buy at least once a week but there are some packaged foods I’ve found to make life a lot easier (and healthier) when it comes to lunch packing. Here are some of my favorite premade/packaged foods available at grocery stores or online. You will find most of these pictured in my Instagram feed.

  • Lara bars
  • Cocoroons (by Sejoyia foods)
  • Terra chips
  • Seaweed snacks
  • Coconut date rolls (Whole Foods bulk section)
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Aussie bites (founds these at Costco)
  • Epic meat jerky
  • Somersault sesame bites
  • Dried fruit
  • Figgy Pops
  • Sprouted whole grain bread, tortillas and crackers
  • Dang coconut chips (tons of flavors!)
  • Go Raw Cookies
  • Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars
  • Way Better Snacks chips
  • Late July chips

And lastly, some favorite treats (some are healthier than others) but none contain artificial sugars, flavors or colors.

  • Chocolate covered colored sesame seeds (Trader Joes)
  • Bitsy’s Brainfood Smart Cookies
  • Yum Earth gummies
  • Chocolate covered coconut
  • Dark Chocolate
  • 365 brand gummy stars

Do you have some lunchbox tips to share? Feel free to leave comments and pics! You can also follow me on Instagram (@therealisticlunchbox) or on Facebook (The Realistic Lunchbox) for frequent posts of the lunches I pack, along with healthy eating ideas and recipes.

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Fast Food – The Lunchroom Chronicles

  

Today I made a surprise visit to my 1st grader at his shool during lunchtime. While he was so happy to see me and his little brother, I kept thinking about how little time the students get to eat. Lunch is set at 20 minutes, no more. And they’ve been arriving late to lunch (they go as a class) according to my son. At first I was dubious as to his truthfulness and perhaps thought that the reason half his lunch was coming home was because he was anxious to get to recess, but today I witnessed first hand how it went down.

I arrived at the front desk check in at 12:41 thinking that my 2 year old and I had better hurry since lunch starts promptly at 12:40pm. We started briskly walking towards the 1st grade class, which is on the way to the lunchroom, but then we saw that the class was still en route walking together to the lunchroom. Hmmmmm. We arrived at the lunchroom at 12:46. The kids now have 14 minutes left in their lunchtime. This is one reason I pack a lunch from home, to gain more eating time. I’m pretty sure that by the time the kids without home packed lunches sat down (after waiting to buy lunch) they had 10 minutes or less to eat. Gulp.
I understand that there may be reasons for why kids would only have 20 minutes to eat. For one, our lunchroom is incredibly small and so each grade has a separate lunchtime (we live in Minnesota – no eating outside for most of the year!). But my worries are hovering around the following questions. What are we teaching our children in regards to healthy eating habits? A school is place for learning, and not just academics. We could use the lunchroom to teach healthy eating habits (chewing your food properly, not talking with a mouth full of pizza, sitting and talking with friends leisurely, etc) instead of encouraging scarfing down food, not eating to satiety because lunch is over abruptly, etc). When I was in nutrition school, I remember learning the Japanese phrase, “hara hachi bu” (forgive my spelling!) which means “eat until two thirds full”. The Japanese were wise to know before science that it takes a bit of time for the stomach to tell the brain that satiety has been reached. But you can’t learn that if you are cramming food down your gullet just to get enough in there before lunch is over! The kids I saw weren’t even sitting for one minute after finishing eating. They were dismissed to the playground, rapidly packed up their half eaten food and raced off. Hmmmm, could these bad eating habits be related to portion control issues as adults? And what about digestion? So yeah, they managed to throw some food in their stomachs before running out to the playground, but your stomach can’t digest food on the go!  With the onslaught of stress related chronic disease in adulthood (and childhood), hasn’t anyone thought, “well, let’s change these disastrous health habits while we still can?” I see a connection here, maybe not the only answer to the problem, but definitely part of it.

What is your child’s lunchroom experience like? Do you agree that the school lunchroom is a learning opportunity? What eating habits do you want your child to acquire before adulthood?

I feel like there will be more chapters to The Lunchroom Chronicles…

Leftovers for Lunch

  

Toddler lunch, preschool lunch, school lunch or even for adults, this lunch is good for the whole family, especially people with food allergies or sensitivities as it is peanut free, nut free, gluten free and dairy free. 

Today we are using our Thermos Funtainer to keep honey sesame chicken with brown rice and broccoli warm. Since this is for my 2 year old I cut up all the food into small bite size pieces. The other containers pictured are Kids Konserve and have raspberries and coconut chips (chocolate and plain). You may want to check that your small child can open these containers by themselves before sending them to school, teachers are often very busy at lunch time and may not have time to open every child’s lunch stuff. 

1st grade! 

1 for #firstgrade! I can’t believe how fast we went from having a Kindergartener to having a first grader! Here’s his first day of school lunch…

Open faced sandwich on a potato bun with melted cheese and bacon (pre cooked over the weekend to speed up lunch prep). Pluot, carrots (with bento eyes- found on Amazon) and bell pepper “teeth” and cucumber eyes, #waybettersnacks sweet potato chips and gummy stars from #wholefoodsmarket.