Healthy Lunch, Happy Child

"When the bell rang for lunch Frances sat down next to her friend Albert.  "What do you have today? said Frances.  "I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread," said Albert.  "And a pickle to go with it.  And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that.  And a thermos bottle of milk.  And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine.  And a cup custard with a spoon to eat it with. What do you have?"  "

Bread & jam for frances

 

That priceless segment from Bread and Jam For Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban makes me smile every time.  It reminds me of my middle-school days...my friends and I sitting around the big round lunch table, with our lunches proudly spread out on our napkins.  We talked and ate and talked some more, until the lunch lady kicked us out for our daily dose of the playground.  That was in the 70's, before the tidal-wave of pre-packaged and largely unhealthy snacks hit the market.  Sure, a few of the 'lucky' kids brought potato chips or the occasional Hostess ho-ho, but for the most part, we ate sandwiches, apples, carrot sticks and homemade cookies for dessert.

Browsing through the Sunday newspaper supplements this morning, I got the impression that in today's world a typical packed lunch consists of processed lunchable-type meals, corn-syrup based yogurt drinks, plastic cups of fruit or pudding, artificially colored 'fruit snacks' and sugar-laden cereal bars.  These things might be OK every once in awhile, but on a regular basis they are BAD NEWS for the health of our kids. 

But it doesn't have to be this way.  It's really quite easy to pack a healthy lunch - and you don't have to spend a lot of time or money.  Here are some tips for packing a healthy lunch that your kids will love...

Sandwiches & Beyond

  • Cookie cutter sandwich There's nothing wrong with a plain old sandwich, but you might score more points by trying something new...
  • Instead of peanut butter & jelly, try almond butter & agave nectar.
  • Instead of ham & cheese, try a healthy BLT (made with nitrate-free turkey bacon.)
  • Instead of plain bread, try a tortilla wrap, mini pitas or rice cakes (I recently discovered some very thinly sliced, round, multigrain sandwich rolls that my boys like a lot.)
  • Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into cute shapes (just be sure not to waste the scraps...)
  • If your child doesn't mind cold food...pizza, grilled cheese or quesadilla wedges can be a nice change of pace.
  • Hard-boiled eggs are a good non-sandwich protein.
  • Send leftovers of their favorite dinner foods in an insulated thermos. 
  • For more healthy lunchbox ideas, check the Vegan Lunch Box cookbook and blog by Jennifer McCann.

{sandwich image by Fauxtographical via flickr}

Fruits & Veggies

  • Send your child to school with a rainbow...of colorful fruits & vegetables!
  • Prep veggies like cucumbers, red pepper slices or broccoli florets ahead to save time in the morning.
  • If you don't have time to prep, pack something easy like grapes, strawberries or baby carrots
  • Kids love to dip - so send along a little dipping sauce like ranch dressing, hummus or even this honey-cream cheese fruit dip.
  • Check the EWG's shopper's guide to pesticides in produce to know when to buy organic. 

Snacks

  • Contrary to popular belief, kids to not need chips in their lunch everyday!
  • Send healthier snacks like trail mix, whole grain crackers or pretzels instead.
  • Fruit hearts Skip the individually packaged snacks - they are wasteful and unnecessary.  A reusable snack bag or small container holds snacks just fine.  (Beware - many organic and natural products tempt you with cute individual packages...so buy a box of bunnies, and leave the little bags behind :))  
  • Check the bulk bins at your co-op or grocery store - you may find some fun snack ideas there (just stay away from the malted milk balls, OK?)  I recently found these low-sugar, gummy hearts that are a big hit in the lunchbox! 

Something Sweet 

  • My kids always want something sweet in their lunch.  If I had been smart, I never would have started down that slippery slope... 
  • Natural fruit leather is plenty sweet.  The downside is, it only comes in individual servings.  (has anyone had luck making their own?  I tried once and failed miserably.)
  • I'm not opposed to sending trail mix with some of those healthier M&M's (Sundrops) mixed in every once in awhile. 
  • Fig bars or other healthier cookies (I try to stay away from individually packaged cereal/granola bars, but sometimes a Z-bar finds it's way into the lunchbox)
  • Matt's cookies - my favorite store-bought brand (made w/out preservatives)
  • Homemade cookies - healthier than store-bought cookies laden with preservatives and artificial ingredients.  Here's a recipe for my favorite healthy chocolate chip cookies - I use 1/2 whole wheat, 1/2 all purpose flour.  (Next time I make them I'm going to sub some nuts (sunflower seeds, I think) for half of the chocolate chips.

What are your tips for packing a healthy, kid-friendly, earth-friendly lunch? 

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