No matter who packs it—Mom, Dad, caregiver or the child himself—a lunch is a big deal. It contributes nearly a third of the child’s calorie and nutrient needs. It’s something to look forward to in the middle of the school day. And it’s changed from the lunch your parent prepared for you.
“I think packed lunches were simpler a generation ago,” says Katie Morford, MS, RD, author of the cookbook Best Lunch Box Ever and the blog Mom’s Kitchen Handbook. “It was a sandwich, a piece of fruit and maybe a bag of chips or a treat. I don’t think a whole lot of vegetables went into school lunches or as much thought about the nutritional value of lunches.”
Dispelling lunch myths
- A great packed lunch has to take a lot of time. Not so. Lunch can be very simple and still tasty and nourishing. Leftovers are a terrific way to save time.
- Kids won’t eat salad for lunch. Not true. If salads are crunchy and fresh with plenty of kid appeal, they can be a real hit. “In our house, if I pack taco salad or a chicken Caesar, the containers always come home empty,” says Morford.
- Lunches should have plenty of “kid food.” Uh-uh. There are hundreds of packaged foods marketed for kids, most of which aren’t particularly healthful. Kids don’t need tubes of artificially flavored yogurt and foil pouches of juice drinks. What kids need is simple, real, whole food.
- Lunches need to be “fun.” Nope. Lunches just need to be, for the most part, eaten. A little bit of fun once in a while is great, but pulling out the cookie cutters and colorful toothpicks to make sandwiches every day isn’t necessary.
- It’s the parent’s job to pack the lunch. Kids can begin helping with lunch in preschool and build their skills from there. By the time they are 8, they can be pretty independent.
- Kids shouldn’t play with their food. Lunch can be fun! Assemble bite-size cheese and cracker sandwiches. Make tiny fruit kabobs on toothpicks. Dip fruit, vegetables, crackers or bread in sauces.
Morford suggests involving kids by letting them pick fruit and veggies they like or getting adventurous and choosing ones they’ve never tried before. “You might be surprised to find your child loves jicama or kumquats.”
Finally, include enough range to keep the kids from boredom. But don’t be surprised if they settle on a few faves and request them week after week. Little ones enjoy a few familiar, comforting items nearby when they’re away from home.
Kiddie Cobb Salad
The Cobb is a protein-packed salad that will stick with your kids through the school day. This version relies on smoked turkey for the signature flavor that typically comes from bacon. Blue cheese is an optional add-in since its flavor is too strong for a lot of little ones. The assembly is more composed than chopped, which makes it as pretty as it is tasty.
Makes 2 salads
- 2 cups chopped butter, red leaf or romaine lettuce
- ½ cup chopped tomato or 10 cherry tomatoes, halved
- ½ large ripe avocado, cubed
- 2 or 3 slices smoked turkey, coarsely chopped
- 2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
- 2 Tbsp. crumbled blue cheese (optional)
- 1 tsp. soy sauce
- 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
- 4 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Divide the lettuce between two large containers. In each container, arrange half the tomato, avocado, turkey, eggs, and blue cheese (if using) in rows on top of the lettuce.
2 To make the dressing, divide the soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil between two small containers. Put on the lids and shake well.
MAKE-AHEAD NOTES: The salad and dressing can be made the night before and stored in the refrigerator, but wait until morning to cut and add the avocado. Be sure to give your child instructions for drizzling the dressing over the salad at lunchtime.
Nutrition facts: 260 calories, 9 g carbohydrate, 13 g protein, 21 g fat (3.5 grams saturated), 200 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 3 g sugar, 3 g fiber, 50% daily value for vitamin A, 20% daily value for calcium, 10% daily value for iron.
Katie Sullivan Morford, Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love, Chronicle Books (2013)