It’s back to school time across America. New schedules, new backpacks, new shoes, and . . . the same tired old lunch. Until school lunches get a whole lot better, I plan to have as much control as possible over what my kids eat during the school day. But I’ll admit, I do get tired of trying to come up with fresh food combinations that I’m confident will end up in their tummies not the trash. Many times, we can’t even fall back on the peanut butter and jelly standby because so many kids seem to be allergic. What’s a time-crunched parent to do? Please don’t say Lunchables. Or Uncrustables. Dirty, dirty words people.
Here are a few ideas, either straight from my shockingly creative brain, or found after trolling the web for inspiration.
Over the summer, we’ve been slightly pita and humus crazy in my house. Fresh fruit, whole wheat pitas, humus, and sometimes carrot and pepper sticks, and we’re good to go. You could also include grape tomatoes, olives and cucumber spears if your kids like that kind of stuff.
There’s only one problem I can see with this idea, and that is that it’s possible your child will get it into his stubborn head that some kid at school will think humus is “weird” or “smells funny” and therefore refuse to eat one of his usual favorites. Not that this has happened to me. I’m just saying it’s possible. And, hey kid, I’ve seen what you bring for lunch and I think it’s weird!
Oh, sorry. Did I say that out loud? Moving on.
This is a good one, that I don’t use enough. Pasta salad, black bean and rice salad, quinoa salad, even some kind of chicken salad (as long as you can keep it cold enough) make great lunches. You can use leftovers from the night before, or mix up a big batch when you have a free half hour (HA!).
A few of my favorites: this mediterranean quinoa salad is awesome, and you can tweak it however you like. I’ve added fresh corn, leftover chicken, and switched out the feta for fresh mozzarella balls. Yum! I also love this wheat berry salad, which I’ve made with wheat berries when I can find them, or subbed quinoa. In fact, these first two salads often sort of blend together for me.
Pasta salad is pretty simple, though sometimes I struggle with what to use as dressing. Sometimes I’ll just do a splash of ranch dressing, but olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some mustard is great too. Then, just throw together some cooked pasta (I use whole wheat), quick-cooked or raw veggies, maybe some cubed ham, cheese, and whatever else you want to use up, and bam-o–lunch.
Lastly, I have a recipe for a black bean and rice salad that I’m itching to try. When I do, and if it’s good, I’ll share.
This is a highly technical term for snack foods that, when combined, can make a downright delicious lunch. Remember, kids don’t care if you give them a “real” meal. As long as it’s healthy, easy to eat, and fills them up, they are happy (ok, they don’t care about the healthy part, but we should). So throw together a mish-mash of finger foods, and call it lunch. That’s what Lunchables did, and they make millions. You can do it yourself, cheaper and healthier.
Some ideas off the top of my head: whole grain tortilla chips and salsa or bean dip; fresh veggies and ranch dip (made with greek yogurt and ranch seasoning); hard-boiled eggs (again, make sure you keep ‘em cold); meat and cheese roll-ups, with or without some kind of carbohydrate like flatbread or bread sticks; whole grain crackers; fruit; edamame; cottage cheese; yogurt; nuts; popcorn; dried fruit, the list goes on and on.
A few words about crackers: I don’t really like them. They’re highly processed, often have lots of sneaky added sugar, and look whole wheat but really aren’t. Also, it’s way too easy to eat way too many. I know a lot of folks feel like crackers and kids go hand in hand, but I’m pretty cracker-free in my house and for the most part, I get away with it. Gold fish? Forget about it. That being said, it is nice for lunch to have a little crunch, and a few crackers or chips as part of a complete meal are not going to kill anyone. Do what works for you, but cutting down on the crackers is easier than you think.
Duh, right? Of course sandwiches make a good lunch. But don’t you ever get bored with the same old same old? Why not try a BLT? I don’t know why it took me until I have a second grader to think of that. Make bacon (or bacon substitute) on Sunday morning, and use the extra pieces for lunch the next day. Sure, bacon isn’t a health food, but a couple of thin slices for flavor, along with crisp lettuce and fresh tomatoes on whole wheat bread? Yum. It won’t hurt your kid to eat that every once in awhile.
Another great idea is a veggie sandwich, with humus (again that stinky humus!), tomato, cucumber, sprouts, or whatever else your kids like. I had one of these on the way to our Crested Butte campsite, and wow, I’m still thinking about it today.
It’s easier than you think to put together a quick, healthy lunch without all the pre-packaged, white bread, no crust, salty, sugary junk. And in fact, some of this stuff is so simple to stuff in a lunchbox, your kids can do it themselves while you enjoy an extra cup of coffee. Genius.