Q. Can you give me some healthy school lunch ideas? I end up packing the same lunch every day: half a salami/cheese sandwich, goldfish crackers, half an apple, a chunk of cheese and two pieces of chocolate. My 8-year-old daughter and I are both sick of it.

A. Great question! You are not the first parent who’s asked me this. Let me first say that I appreciate that you are taking the time to pack your daughter’s lunch every day.  I don’t know about you, but I find this very therapeutic and feel good knowing I’ve sent our boys off with food that’s been prepared at home.

But let me ask you, has your daughter told you she’s bored with her lunches? I like to ask parentsgrapes and fruit this question because it’s normal to project our own feelings onto our kids. I’ve done this before, thinking that the lunches I was making were redundant, since I like a lot of variety in my diet.  My boys, on the other hand, would be just fine if I rotated a few items every few days.  They don’t require anything too elaborate, and I think you’ll find most kids are that way.  So, first check with your kids before making any assumptions.

If they are truly bored, and you both feel like some diversity and variety would make lunch more interesting, then here’s a fun game to play:

  • Sit down with your kids and get out a piece of paper.
  • Fold the paper into thirds to make three vertical columns.
  • On the front-side of the paper at the top of the first column, write the word PROTEIN.  At the top of the second column, write the word STARCH, and at the top of the third column, the word FRUIT.
  • Then turn the paper over and on the backside, write the word VEGGIES at the top of the first column and TREATS at the top of the second column. You can use the third column for BEVERAGES, but I usually keep this column blank because kids should really just have water with their meals.
  • Now, go through the list of categories and ask your kids what food items they would like in their lunch that fit into each column. Here is an example:

Protein

  • Turkey (this could also be chicken, tuna fish, etc.)
  • Cheese stick
  • Eggs
  • Hummus
  • Peanut butter
  • Milk

Starch

  • Whole grain tortillas
  • Whole wheat pita bread
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Whole wheat bread

Fruit

  • Grapes
  • Apple
  • Raisins
  • Tangerine
  • Applesauce

Veggies

  • Carrots
  • Edamame
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers

Treats (not candy or sugary treats – save these for non-meal occasions so that kids don’t group them in with healthy-meal options)

  • Whole wheat pretzels
  • Yogurt tube – natural brands with no food coloring
  • Gold fish – baked and with no food coloring
  • Whole grain cereal bar
  • Veggie Bootie

You can make your list much bigger if you’d like. In fact, having 10 to 15 options under each category is a great start. You can then play the Mix ‘n Match Game, where you take a food from each category and include it in your child’s lunch to represent the chosen food groups.

Here are some meal ideas using the above list:

  • Turkey wrapped in a tortilla, grapes, tomatoes, yogurt tube
  • Peanut butter on an apple, cheese stick, carrots, pretzels
  • Hummus w/pita bread, applesauce, edamame (soy beans), cereal bar
  • Hard-boiled egg, pasta salad, peppers w/salad dressing, raisins, Gold Fish crackers
  • Milk, tangerine, celery w/peanut butter, crackers, Veggie Bootie

What’s great about this process is that your kids come up with their own choices.  You can then fall back on this when they say they don’t like their lunch or that it’s getting boring.  When this happens, just add to or change the list. You can also make your grocery list directly from the columns, which makes shopping simple and quick.  Many times moms and dads feel encouraged to expand the list when they have the Mix n’ Match format in front of them at the store. Possibly, you’d add a new vegetable or fruit to the column, or explore with some new sources of protein like black bean soup, almond butter or tempeh.

Remember, if you only come up with four or five items per column, that may be plenty for now. You can keep using these four or five items and just switch things around. Then when your kids start asking for different options, sit down and refine the list.

If you’d like more specific ideas for your family, please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you with ideas.

Have a wonderful week!

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