School Lunches: Think Outside The Lunchbox

Sep 8, 2015

It’s a challenge every parent of a school-age child faces: packing a lunch that is nutritionally balanced and delicious and will actually get eaten.

There’s no one universal lunch that every kid will eat. Kids are picky in different ways: some won’t eat meat, others shun fruit or vegetables or balk at sauces. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that you knocked yourself out making a healthy lunch for your kid if it winds up in the garbage.

Involve Kids In Lunch Planning And Packing

The best way to make sure kids are happy with their midday meal is to involve them in the decision-making and packing process. 

My son goes through lunch phases. For a while last year, he brought bowls of cereal and containers of milk for lunch. One day, I made a breakfast sandwich (a quickly cooked or scrambled egg on an English muffin with cheese and ham or bacon) and he was hooked—it occurred to me that a breakfast sandwich is just as suitable for lunch.

A breakfast sandwich makes an excellent lunch.

When my son asked for instant noodles, which can get soggy in a Thermos, I made my own instant noodle bowls: put dried Asian noodles, bits of chopped chicken, veggies, peas—whatever you have or like—in a jar with a sprinkle of bouillon mix. At school, add hot water from a kettle, let sit for a few minutes to let the noodles soften (and for it to cool down a bit) and eat. This can be a bit sophisticated for younger kids, but I know some teenagers (and grown-ups) who love it.

Easy homemade instant noodles.

Try Easy-To-Assemble Lunches

It’s important to remember that for most kids, lunchtime is also social time—a chance to chat and play with their friends.

The best way to make sure kids are happy with their midday meal is to involve them in the decision-making and packing process.

Help make lunchtime fun for kids by packing different compartments of ingredients so kids can assemble their own mini-sandwiches or nibble bite-by-bite, if that’s what they want to do (this can also save you some time first thing in the morning).

Although there are more and more fancy lunchbox options available these days, small plastic craft or fishing tackle boxes easily transform into Bento boxes—each compartment is the perfect size for one ingredient.

Some ideas:

  • cubed cheese or Babybel
  • deli meat
  • crackers
  • mini pitas
  • flour tortillas spread with cream cheese, then rolled and sliced into bite-sized pieces
  • baby cucumbers
  • grape tomatoes
  • rice crackers
  • mini pretzels
  • trail mix
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • anything small and bite-sized that your kids like!

It’s easier for some kids to nibble and graze their way through lunch—especially if they’re type to get overwhelmed by a full-sized sandwich.

You'll Also Love: DIY Lunchables: The Healthier Way

Don’t Feel Limited By “Regular” Lunch Food

When I was a kid, I envied my friend Jennifer, whose mom packed hot dogs in a Thermos, with buns alongside and small packets of ketchup she had saved from take-out. When my friend Kristen got braces, her mom made her “space food” (peanut butter and honey in a frosting bag) that she could squeeze into her mouth.

Many kids in my class brought leftovers from the previous night’s dinner (this is still popular, I hear) and sometimes my mom would pack leftover pancakes or waffles from breakfast. On weekends, we’d bake a big batch of muffins or cookies that my sisters and I would get in our lunches all week.

Two freshly-baked cookies.

Lunchtime doesn’t have to be all about sandwiches. Get creative with your kids and think about new lunch ideas.

A 10-Year-Old’s Thoughts On Lunch

I asked my just-turned-10-year-old to write about his thoughts on school lunches.

This is what he had to say:

Ah, lunch. My favorite time of the dayyummy food, a good break and great desserts. Some of my favorite lunches are pizza, noodles, hot dogs, burritos and hamburgers. Sometimes I don’t like lunch if it has spinach, tomato, broccoli, carrot and cucumbers. Sometimes my mom packs what I want (like chocolate pudding) and sometimes she doesn’t. I think about and look at weird food, like PB&J&S (peanut butter and jelly and sardines) and deep fried chicken. If I could make my own lunches, I would put in gummy worms, an apple, a hamburger and a hot dog. That would be so yummy it would probably make me blow up in sparkles.

My favorite foods are: hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter, shrimp, raisins, chocolate, pancakes/waffles, spaghetti, lasagna, etc. and all of it would make me happy in my lunch. Some of my friends get to have what I want, like Kool-Aid, wafer bars, chocolate pudding and Wagon Wheels. My mom likes to make things herself. My dream lunch is two full pizzas, the world’s largest gummy worm and 20 chocolate cupcakesit would be enough to feed my whole class.

When you make a sandwich, put it in a wrapper, not just in the lunch. Make sure your lunch bag/box is fully secure and make sure it does not break. Do not bring water in your lunch, your lunch bag could burst. Bring it in a water bottle.

Kids take comfort in the familiar—parents often focus on keeping their kids’ lunches new and interesting, when most kids just want something they know and like.

Article Author Julie Van Rosendaal
Julie Van Rosendaal

Read more from Julie here.

Julie Van Rosendaal is the author of six best-selling cookbooks (with a seventh due out this fall), the food editor of Parents Canada magazine and the food and nutrition columnist on the Calgary Eyeopener on CBC Radio One. She is a recipe developer, TV personality, food stylist and writes about food for local, national and international publications. She is perhaps best known as the voice behind her popular food blog, Dinner with Julie, where she documents real life at home in Calgary with her husband and nine-year-old son. Connect on twitter @dinnerwithjulie.


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