By: Beth Chatfield, MS, RD

Planning nutritious lunches that kids actually want to eat is quite the feat, no matter if your child is a picky or adventurous eater. Beth Chatfield, a registered dietitian at Connecticut Children’s, joins the Growing Healthy blog to share 9 ideas for healthy lunches that kids love.

These lunch ideas are based on five key elements. Use them when you fix your lunches, too:

  • Include more whole foods and less processed foods, which have higher sodium, added sugar and saturated fat.
  • Choose lunch items with higher amounts of fiber and nutrients children need (like calcium, protein, and vitamin C).
  • Be creative. Think outside the lunchbox. Does your child enjoy spanakopita triangles or veggie corn dogs at home? With a little forethought and a reusable cold pack, you can probably pack them for lunch, too.
  • Keep it cold. For safety’s sake, pack lunch with a reusable ice pack. Better yet, freeze a small water bottle or box of 100% juice. Your child will have a slushy drink to enjoy at lunch and won’t have to worry about bringing an ice pack home.
  • Keep it fun. Include items that kids can stack or mix up to their taste when they eat. Remember that kids like to dunk, and include healthy dips with vegetables or other items.

Pasta Lover’s Salad

Pack a cold pasta salad and a plastic fork. Make the salad with lean meat or low-fat cheese (so it has some protein), lots of vegetables to boost fiber and nutrition, and whole wheat or whole-grain pasta. Toss everything together with light bottled vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil or canola oil.

Pita Pocket

Fill a pita pocket with tuna fish, chicken salad, lean meats and low fat cheese or hummus.

Fruit and Cheese Plate

Fill a divided plastic container with assorted cubes or slices of reduced fat cheese, easy-to-eat fruit such as apple and pear slices, grapes, berries or melon and whole-wheat crackers.

Peanut Butter Fun Pack

Make a peanut butter fun pack by spooning two tablespoons of natural-style peanut butter in a reusable plastic container, along with whole wheat crackers or whole wheat pita pocket wedges and raw vegetables, such as celery or zucchini.

Everything Is Better on a Mini Bagel

Whole-wheat mini bagels are a wonderful foundation for hardy sandwiches that stand up to being in a backpack or locker all morning. Add tuna or lean, roasted, and sliced turkey or roast beef. Top it off with reduced-fat cheese and fresh tomato and Romaine lettuce or sprouts. Two mini bagels can supply 6 grams of fiber to the meal.

It’s a Wrap!

Wraps are a nice change of pace from the usual sandwich. Use a high-fiber multigrain flour tortilla, available in most supermarkets. Spread on mustard, hummus, light salad dressing, or sundried tomato pesto. Then fill it up with chicken Caesar salad or assorted lean meats, cheese, tomato and shredded Romaine lettuce. Roll it up and wrap in foil. Kids can eat it like a burrito.

Fun Fried Rice

When made with eggs, tofu or chopped lean meat, and lots of veggies, cold fried rice can be a satisfying lunchtime treat. Make your own using brown rice, or set some aside for the next day when you get take-out Chinese food for dinner.

Muffin Mania

Muffins can add flavor and flair to a bag lunch. If you bake them ahead and keep them in the freezer, you just have to pull out one or two in the morning. By lunch, they’ll be soft and ready to eat.

There are a few tricks to improving the health value of muffin recipes. Substitute whole-wheat flour for at least half of the flour in recipes that call for white flour. Incorporate other whole grains when possible. Add in fruits such as berries or peaches or vegetables like corn or grated zucchini, when appropriate. You can also cut back on the sugar called for in a recipe when you add in fruit.

Tasty Spanakopita Triangles

These spinach-filled filo puffs are vegetarian finger food that’s fun to eat. Some stores carry frozen spanakopita that you can bake in the morning or the night before and pack in your child’s lunch. Read the label to find a brand that’s got plenty of vitamins A and C, plus iron and calcium.

Lunch Side Dishes:

Add some of these to round out your child’s lunch:

  • A piece of fruit or a fruit cup (with no sugar added)
  • Nuts or seeds (if age/allergy appropriate), such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, peanuts or sunflower seeds
  • Raw veggies (ready to pack), such as carrot sticks, snap peas, celery, pepper or cucumber slices
  • Cheese sticks, such as 2% sharp cheddar, part skim-milk mozzarella, pepper jack, and more
  • Healthy snack bars with 3 or more grams of fiber, less than 10 grams sugar, and no more than 1 gram saturated fat (keep snack food about 150 calories)
  • Yogurt in individual containers (keep it cold by packing them with a reusable ice pack or a small water bottle that has been frozen)