“What should I pack for my child’s lunch?”
This is a common question posed by patients of mine at this time of year. When thinking of how to answer, I instantly reflect on what we pack in my daughter’s lunch, thinking about her pickiness (she is getting better) and food based allergy limitations at her school. Overall, my answer would be to consider the following questions:
Will my child eat that?
What will the school allow?
What are the best/healthiest choices to make?
Ideally, the three points above would be listed in a different order, but as noted above, there are limitations to consider when packing a lunch.
When looking at making healthy choices for meals at school, remember that meals should be balanced. This means that lunches (and ideally snacks too) should contain protein, fruits/vegetables, and grains (ideally whole grains). Knowing this, protein options are usually the most challenging to pack (allergies, refrigeration, etc.). So, what are some good options for lunches and snacks?
Animal based protein (where you may need an ice pack):
Egg (hardboiled, frittata, egg salad, etc.)
Salmon/tuna/egg/chicken salad sandwich
Yogurt (add fruit)
Cheese (sandwich, with crackers, pasta, etc.)
Nut free trail mixes (use seeds along with oats and dried fruit)
Plant based protein:
Beans (refried, baked, in a wrap, etc.)
Lentils (in salad, soup, wrap, stir fry)
Soybeans or tofu
Chickpeas (roasted, falafel or in a salad)
Hummus (with vegetables or crackers)
Quinoa (salads, wraps, etc.)
Any of the proteins above can be packed with 2 servings of vegetables/fruit for lunch and 1-2 other servings for snacks.
What if there is not time to pack a lunch? While prepackaged lunches are convenient, their nutritional value can vary greatly. If considering pre-packaged lunches, look for lunches that provide meal balance (i.e., include protein, fruits/vegetables and grains) and thoroughly review nutritional information and the ingredient list to determine if healthy.
What about a drinks? Primarily, think water and milk (or milk alternative), and try to minimize juice. Also, electrolyte drinks generally are not healthy, as they contain as much or more sugar than soft drinks.
There are a great number of resources available online that provide example lunches. When reviewing them, make sure to consider:
Will your child eat the foods suggested?
Are the meal suggestions nutritionally balanced?
Is the food convenient to make, transport and keep fresh in a lunchbox?
And - do they suggest pre-packaged foods that you should avoid (think high in sugar/salt/fat, contain trans fats, preservatives and artificial colors)?
Planning you child’s lunch is a chore and can be challenging. Hopefully, with a little planning and preparation, you can find ways to quickly put together a healthy lunch, that your child will eat.