Healthy & Delicious Lunch Ideas

child eating lunchBeth Chatfield, MS, RD of Connecticut Children’s Nutrition department  shares some fun ways to make school lunches healthier! 

As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free kids Act championed by former first lady Michelle Obama, school meals over the next three years will be healthier. The new guidelines will double the amount of fruits and vegetables; boost offerings of whole grain-rich foods, decrease sodium and Trans fats, along with setting maximums for calories.

The New Hot Lunch

An example of a new meal for lunch could be whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce and a whole wheat roll, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, low-fat milk and low-fat ranch dip.

Teach your kids the importance of eating nutritious foods at lunchtime. Hopefully with your help they will choose healthier salads and vegetables instead of French fries, and milk or water instead of juice or soda.

Brown Baggin’ It

If your child doesn’t like hot lunches, like my daughter, another option is to send a lunch with your kids. Hearty soups, salads, fruits, and sandwiches with whole grains can all be packed in insulated containers to stay hot or cold.

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

  • Include more whole foods and less processed foods. Choose lunch items with higher amounts of fiber and nutrients children need (like calcium, protein, and vitamin C). Include fewer processed foods such as cookies, chips, and snack cakes, which have higher sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat.
  • Be creative. Think outside the lunchbox. Does your child enjoy spanakopita triangles, Chinese chicken salad, 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.

Try these menu items to jazz up everyone’s’ bag lunches:

Pasta Lover’s Lunch 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, 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.

Celebrate Lunch Salads

A plastic container can hold the makings of a delicious salad lunch. For a Cobb salad, fill it with spinach or chopped dark green lettuce, chopped hard-boiled egg, light cheese, and/or lean ham. Or toss in the ingredients for a Chinese chicken salad: dark salad greens, shredded chicken, shredded carrots, sliced green onion, and toasted sliced almonds. The salad will stay fresher if you or your child adds the dressing at lunchtime. Put a light dressing into a small container or buy packets of light dressing.

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 ‘er up with chicken Caesar salad or assorted lean meats, cheese, tomato and shredded Romaine lettuce. Just 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 noontime 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. Switch in fats (such as canola or olive oil).

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)
  • Applesauce in flavors such as pomegranate or cranberry-raspberry (also 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, sugar snap peas, celery, pepper or cucumber slices
  • Cheese sticks – available in 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)

Children who eat healthy foods may continue to make better food and nutrition choices when they grow up, while overweight children tend to continue their eating habits and become overweight adults. Teaching your child how to create a healthy diet will have a bigger impact if you set the example. Eat right, get some exercise and activity and make a healthy lifestyle a family affair.

See you for lunch!

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