Packing healthy lunches that kids will eat can sometimes be tricky.  Many factors make it even more difficult: conflicting dietary advice, financial and time restrictions, food sensitivities or strong preferences, and school lunch policies. Our family faces all of the above issues, and has found an approach that works.

We are gluten- and dairy-free, and we also exclude peanuts (for everyone’s olfactory comfort!).  School lunches are obviously not an option.  Throw into that a tight budget and the rigorous schedules of a Naturopathic doctor, a second grade teacher, and two children who attend a school with high expectations for homework, and you’ve got your work cut out for you!  We hope that you will find some of the suggestions below helpful.

What’s in a Lunch?

What are the basic components of a healthy lunch?

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit (a sweet treat!)
  • Protein
  • Healthy fat
  • Filler (usually, carbohydrates): whole grains, more veggies, more fruit, more protein, more fat

Before you Shop:

We all know that poor planning leads to poor results; the same applies to lunches.  What should you consider before visiting the grocery store?

  • What are your child’s preferences?
  • What food intolerances need to be considered?
  • What is your budget?
  • Are there any major events happening this week?  A big test, a big game, a field trip, extra time restrictions?
  • Will your child eat leftovers?
  • What is your menu for the week?  Make a list!

At the Store:

Never shop hungry, and go with a list!

  • Shop the periphery of the store
  • Bring your child along and give choices (“do you want broccoli or cauliflower in your lunch?”)
  • Buy seasonally
  • Shop the bulk section ( a great place for trail mix, nuts, and Special Snacks)
  • Buy vegetables that will do double-duty for lunches and other meals (buy a bag of carrots instead of baby carrots)
  • Buy sturdy fruits and veggies that will hold up the whole week (bananas don’t last until Friday!)
  • If you eat meat, buy lunch meat in bulk

When You Get Home:

A little time now will save you time throughout the week.

  • Wash your produce! (Fill a sink with tepid water and a cup of vinegar, and let produce soak for ten minutes–this will remove the majority of chemicals).
  • Bundle lunch veggies (we do at least three colors) for each day, each child, for the week.  Bundle fruit for each day, each child, for the week.  We use plastic wrap, even though it is not waste-free, due to space constraints.  What affordable solutions do you have for this pre-packaging?  Wrap the produce bundle in masking tape, include initials and day of the week, and there will be no “confusion” about who needs to eat what, when.
  • If you’re planning on including a Special Snack, such as a paleo “cookie,” protein bar, granola, or similar, these should be baking now!  Individually package these and put them in the freezer so they can quickly be put into lunch boxes.  This is called the “Special Snack” in our house; its presence in the lunch box is contingent upon whether or not main course and produce were eaten the day before.

Packing the Dang Lunch!

Now that you have set yourself up for success, this is the easy part!  It is completely reasonable to expect your second grader or older to pack their own lunch, with the support already provided.

  • Pack it the night before.
  • Make a main course: this is where the fat and protein come in.  A sandwich; meat and cheese; leftovers from dinner; salad with protein (beans, seeds, or meat); lettuce wrap; use your imagination! In our house, leftovers have caused strife, and there is no student microwave, so our kids make sandwiches, on homemade gluten-free bread.
  • Throw in a produce package!
  • Throw in a “Special Snack” if applicable.
  • Back-up snack:  never feel like a bad parent!  We always include a tub of nuts, and they never eat it, but they cannot complain to you or their teacher that they “have nothing left to eat.”  Make sure this is a non-perishable item.
  • Throw it in the fridge (we put it on the stoop as soon as the weather turns cooler).

Alternates and Options

  • If you want to pack fragile fruits (pears, peaches, grapes, kiwis, bananas, etc.), pack them for the beginning of the week.  We eat a lot of apples, as they are hardy and will survive all week.
  • If you don’t like the idea of plastic wrap, prep a tub of cut-up veggies for the week and grab a handful each day to put in reusable containers.
  • Veggies go down better with a dip.  Some of our favorites are almond butter, hummus or homemade bean dip.  Ranch and other cream-based dressings/dips aren’t so healthy and get kind of nasty without refrigeration; use as little as possible, but how about a nice vinaigrette?
  • For some kids, sandwiches get old.  Here is a link to other main course options.

My Kid Doesn’t Like…

First, don’t assume they don’t like it.  Repeated exposures, encouragement, and your attitude towards food make a huge difference in what kids will and won’t eat.

  • Talk with them to try to understand what about it they don’t like: taste, texture, how they feel after eating it, etc.  Sometimes reluctance to eat a food can be a sign of an unidentified intolerance.  For example, our son Isaiah would never drink milk or eat yogurt.  Lo and behold, he has an intolerance to dairy.
  • Experiment with alternatives.  Ask what they would like instead.  Give them options (“in addition to carrots and celery, do you want sweet peppers or cherry tomatoes?”).
  • Take kids shopping with you so they can pick out what produce they would be willing to eat.
  • Try combining produce with a dip.
  • Your child will not likely die of starvation in her/his attempt to boycott a healthy lunch.  Protein shakes and meal replacements should be a last-ditch effort under the supervision of a trained medical professional. If you have concerns, chat with your family doctor.
  • Don’t be afraid to use small, appropriate consequences (punishments and rewards) for your child’s lunch:
    • Eat your sandwich and produce or you won’t get a Special Snack tomorrow.
    • Eat your produce at lunch or you’ll eat it at dinner.
    • No after-school snacks if you didn’t finish your lunch.

What about Drinks?

  • Water or white milk only.
  • Juice is full of sugar.  If you want your child to have apple juice, give them an apple and then they get the fiber too.
  • Did your child compete in a triathlon today? No? He/she does not need the sugar and electrolytes found in Gatorade, Powerade, or similar.

Our children were picky eaters.  They literally sat on their hands and cried at the dinner table when faced with veggie-laden food.  After a lot of trial and error, sticking to our guns, and communication, we have found an affordable, efficient, healthy compromise.

——-

Hunter and Danielle Currey live in Milwaukie, Oregon, where they enjoy spending time outdoors and being active in their community.  They are the proud parents of Elora and Isaiah.  Dr. Danielle Currey is a licensed Naturopathic physician practicing in Clackamas, Oregon, where she serves pediatric patients and their families, but also takes an interest in patients with chronic illness; she herself lives with psoriatic arthritis, and has appreciated firsthand the value of naturopathic medicine. Hunter Currey has taught in the public school system for over nine years, with a focus in primary education; getting his start in San Jose with Teach For America, he works to help young children amaze themselves and their families every day.