Healthy School Lunch Hacks
As parenting tasks go, packing your kid’s lunchbox often ranks somewhere between doing the laundry and driving the carpool — that is, something that is tedious, routine, necessary, and to be endured.
(Is it any wonder so many of us turn into grownups that are slaves to the sad desk salad?)
Fact is, getting the lunchbox packed is but one hurdle. It’s just so easy to get into a rut. (And the more stuck you get, the stronger the case for Lunchables becomes.)
So here are some fresh ideas to keep your kiddo’s lunchbox enticing and exciting.
Skip the Chips
No lunchbox is complete without a crunchy snack, and roasted chickpeas are every bit as satisfyingly crunchable as Doritos, but chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are loaded with fiber and protein, two nutrients that’ll help keep your kiddo’s tummy full and blood sugar steady, and they’re gloriously devoid of glow-in-the-dark orange powder.
They’re super easy to make using canned beans: just drain and rinse, toss with olive oil and whatever seasonings your kid likes — rosemary and salt, salt and pepper, garlic powder and onion powder to mimic ranch, chili and lime —and bake in a 450 oven for 30 minutes or so.
It’s a Wrap
Lettuce wraps work with a number of fillings, from last night’s leftover steak and potatoes to store bought rotisserie chicken and bagged slaw, to hummus and veggies or a crumbled veggie burger and shredded cheese.
If you have a kid who enjoys playing with her food, pack the leaves — little gems or butter leaf lettuce work best — separately from the goodies for a delicious lunch that doubles as a kind of art-project-meets-assembly-toy.
Add a little container of dressing, plain yogurt, or salsa for dipping, and let your future Picasso go to town.
Pizza! (Yes, Pizza!)
The humble pie presents a plethora of opportunities to up the healthy ante. First, use a whole wheat English muffin or cauliflower crust as your base.
Depending on your Martha Stewart quotient, you might want to whip up a homemade sauce, into which you can sneak shredded carrots, onions, peppers, and chopped mushroom. Store bought varieties are often plenty good for you, too — just check the label to make sure you’re not about to detonate a sugar bomb.
From there, you can stash some veggies under the cheese if your child’s proclivities mean you should play it stealth — otherwise, add the mozz and then some colorful chopped veggies on top. Assemble and bake the night before, and refrigerate overnight.
Board the Toast Train
Avocado toast is its own religion these days, and while it is, indeed, delightful, there’s no reason the green stuff should have all the fun. (Plus, it’s hard to keep that lovely shade of green from morphing into an unappetizing grey while waiting for the lunch bell to ring.)
To riff on the toast concept, first get some seriously hearty, seedy bread. Second, don’t toast it! Your kiddo’s not going to be eating her lunch for a while, after all.
For the kid who likes her peas, spread that bread with a generous smear of ricotta cheese. Top it with fresh (or frozen) peas and fava beans or edamame, and drizzle with just the slightest bit of honey. This tasty meal hits all the pleasure points — chewy bread, creamy cheese, crunchy veg, sweet honey — while delivering a smattering of protein and fiber-packed greenery that’s so pretty, even the surliest tween will be stoked to share it on her Instagram.
And for the kid who is averse to all things green? Spread the bread with her favorite nut or seed butter, then top with sliced bananas and shredded coconut.
(Pro tip: before packing this into a reusable sandwich container, insert a couple of toothpicks into your creation and leave them sticking out of the top; this will keep your fancy toppings on the bread, and not smooshed onto the top of the container.)
You can’t go wrong with quiche. A protein-packed place in which to tuck nutritious veggies like spinach, broccoli, squash, peppers, tomatoes, onions or mushrooms means you can pat yourself on the back for being on top of the healthy meal thing — crust (go for a whole grain variety) and delicious add-ins like cheese and ham means your kid will eat it.
Plus, you can keep it in the freezer or fridge for several days, so you’ll get at least a couple of meals out of it. Win, win, and win.
And if you want to eighty-six the crust entirely, turn out your quiche mixture into a prepared muffin tin, and bake in a 350 oven for 20 minutes or until the egg is set. Who knows? The cute individual muffins might so delight your child that they don’t even miss the crust. Hey, it’s possible!
Who doesn’t love a quesadilla? Rare is the child who can resist the comfort of melted cheese, and rare is the parent who can resist such a grand opportunity to sneak in a salad’s worth of veggies under the cover of toasted tortilla.
And about that tortilla: use whole wheat or corn tortillas, or a whole grain flatbread like lavash — regular flour tortillas are basically Wonder Bread without the cool retro packaging.
To your standard cheese mix (we’re thinking mozz, jack, and cheddar), add diced bell peppers and tomatoes, or finely chopped spinach and mushrooms.
Assemble, cook, and refrigerate the night before; come lunchtime, it’ll have the glorious consistency of leftover pizza.
Just a couple of swaps turn this sportsbar mainstay into a veritable health food.
First, scrub a sweet potato and cut it into 1/8-inch-thick rounds, place them onto an oiled baking sheet, brush with more olive oil or melted butter, and top with a little salt and pepper. Bake in a 450 oven for about 20 minutes, flipping once.
Pack them separately from the toppings, which should include some plain, full-fat Greek yogurt, chopped ham, and chives. All that’s missing is the beer! Oh wait…
From corndogs to Fudgesicles, there’s just something about food on a stick that renders it uniquely appealing. So why not try something a little healthier?
Mini mozzarella balls and cherry tomatoes drizzled in pesto is a kid-friendly spin on Caprese salad. Cubed chicken and cheddar get a zesty zing from bell peppers. Cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta chunks mimic a Greek salad.
It’s a Date
Dates are nature’s little energy bars — they’re irresistibly sweet, but loaded with nutrients like potassium and magnesium — and their petite size make them the perfect containers for a bite-sized dollop of any number of tasty fillings.
To prepare some delicious and nutritious stuffed snacks, slice dates lengthwise about halfway through, until you reach the pit. Remove the pit, and spread the sides open. Stuff with a spoonful of goat cheese or sunflower seed butter, then pinch the sides back together so just a hint of what’s inside peeks out.
A couple of these powerhouse snacks will keep your kiddo plenty fueled up for even the most taxing round of recess Dodgeball.
Cowboy caviar, that is.
Loaded with iron, protein, fiber, vitamins A, B and C, as well as lycopene and potassium, this salsa/salad/side dish brings together black beans, black-eyed peas, diced tomatoes, corn, and chopped peppers in an enticing, colorful, Tex-Mex ensemble that kids love.
Pack it with some whole grain tortilla chips, diced chicken, and shredded cheese, and your kid’s basically sitting on a platter of nachos for lunch.
They might be so filled with gratitude that they come home and clean their room. Or not. But you’ll be too pleased about all those glorious nutrients now coursing through their veins to care.
Hack Your Mac
Macaroni and cheese cups are so irresistible your kid will hardly notice the way you’ve coopted them into a vehicle for vegetables and whole grains, you ninja of nutrition, you.
Here’s how you do it: Using either a boxed, whole wheat variety or your favorite scratch recipe (subbing in whole wheat pasta), make the mac and cheese as you usually would, adding finely chopped spinach and diced carrots or broccoli and cauliflower to the boiling water along with the pasta.
Once your macaroni-and-vegetable creation has been cheesed (or bechameled, if you’re far fancier than the rest of us), preheat the oven to 350 and prepare a muffin tin with cupcake liners coated with non-stick cooking spray. Spoon your mac and veg and cheese into the cups (you can go big as they won’t rise), bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven and how crunchy you like the edges, and voila — mac and cheese cupcakes!
Just be sure to thank us when your kid nominates you for parent of the year.
Dip Dip Dip Dip Dip
For a healthy snack item, include some chopped veggies — carrots, celery, broccoli, cucumber, peppers, jicama, tomatoes, snap peas — and a dip — hummus or white bean spread, tzatziki, baba ganoush or even ranch.
The main thing here is to keep it easy, by which we mean, use what you know your kid likes.
If your kid loves broccoli and ranch, don’t serve him carrots and hummus unless you relish the idea of encountering the stuff eight hours – or more — later, only to throw it away, and, perhaps, discover that it’s grown legs.
Jumble in a Jar (AKA Don’t Call It a Salad!)
Even if your kiddo is staunchly salad-averse, this fun, colorful, customizable concept might be enticing enough to trick him turn him around.
The basic formula goes like this: in the bottom of a mason jar, layer dressing, sauce, or salsa; from there, add heartier, crunchier stuff that can tolerate soaking up some dressing — think tomatoes, cukes, peppers, carrots, celery, broccoli, grains, pasta — whatever your little likes. Next, pile on beans, lentils, corn, nuts, or seeds; after that, add goodies like chopped cheese, hard-boiled eggs, chicken, ham, turkey, or tuna.
For the grand finale, if your kid can deal with it, the greens, which will stay nice and crunchy away from the dressing but are by no means necessary and should be eliminated entirely and without a second thought if they will trip your child’s “Wait a minute, this is healthy!” sensor.
Kids can help assemble the night before, and when the lunch bell rings, all they have to do is give it a hearty shake and dig in.
Using a box grater, shred a combo of veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, zucchini, butternut, or any other kind of squash — whatever you like — into a pile of veggiliciousness. Squeeze as much water as you can from the aforementioned pile to ensure adequate crispy-crunchiness, then, in a mixing bowl, combine with salt, pepper, and whatever other seasonings your kiddo likes.
Butter your waffle iron, add the veggies like you would batter, and close the lid. Squeeze down when the mood strikes. Check after ten minutes, and again every couple of minutes after that, and remove when your creation has achieved optimal golden-browniness.
Make a big batch and freeze; pop one into the lunchbox on its own, along with some plain or maple-sweetened yogurt for dipping, or use two in lieu of bread for a cheese sammie.
A Sweet and Happy Ending
For a fun, sweet ending to your kiddo’s meal, try a yogurt parfait. In a small Mason jar or see-though container (we eat with our eyes, after all, and parfaits are pretty!), layer some plain Greek yogurt first.
Then add a mix of colorful fruit — raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, chopped kiwi fruit, pomegranate seeds. Then add one more layer of yogurt and one more layer of fruit. On top, add a couple of spoonfuls of low-sugar granola, crumbled cereal, toasted oats, slivered almonds (if nuts are OK at school), or mini chocolate chips.
And while you’re at it, make an extra for yourself — no reason your kid should have all the fun!