10 Ways to Think Outside the Lunch Box

September 8, 2014

By Anna Varriano

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It’s hard to believe that it’s back-to-school time. Among the many challenges of getting back in to the routines that come with this time of year, is wracking your brain with what to pack your kids (or yourself!) for lunch, day-in, day out.

When I was in grade school, I was fortunate enough to be able to go home for lunch. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so there was always some kind of amazing lunch ready and waiting for me when I got home. Lunch time was a very special time, as my mom would sit and eat with me, we’d chat about our mornings, and then we’d play a card game or two on the steps while we listened to my Partridge Family album before I headed back to school for the afternoon. How lunch times have changed!

What’s In Kids’ Lunch Boxes?

With today’s busy schedules, lunches can be more of a challenge, especially since most children now eat lunch at school. Studies have found that about 1/3 of packed school lunches are dominated by foods and drinks that are high in calories and low in nutrition. In many cases, the go-to choices are time-saving, single-serving prepackaged and processed lunch and snack foods that are typically high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, and low in healthy fats and proteins that kids need to maintain both their physical and mental energy throughout the school day.

What Should Be In Kids’ Lunch Boxes?

So what should we be packing our kids for lunches and snacks? The focus should be on:

  • Healthy fats. The brain is the fattest organ in the body, so it’s no wonder that it needs healthy fat to function properly!Examples of healthy fats include whole fat dairy products like cheese and yogurt (raw milkLunch box ideas almonds products are best if they are available in your area – and sheep and goat milk are often more nutritious and better tolerated compared with cow’s milk, avocado and olives and their oils,  nuts and seeds and their butters (if allowed at the school), eggs, coconut/coconut oil, and fatty fish like salmon.
  • Protein. Most neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that allow our brain cells to communicate with each other. Examples of halthy proteins include eggs, beef, chicken, turkey, fish, nuts and seeds and their butters (if allowed at school), and yogurt. When buying yogurt, it’s best to buy the larger containers of whole fat, plain organic yogurt, and add your own fruit just before serving. You’d be surprised at the amount of sugar in some flavoured yogurts – and fruit is the enemy of health-boosting probiotics
    in the yogurt which many brands boast about. If your kids want a bit of sweet, you can always add a splash of maple syrup or raw local honey.
  • Vegetables and fruit. Including veggies and fruit in your child’s lunch or snackLunch box ideas apple peanut butter raisins will add fibre, water, and loads of health boosting nutrients to their day. Unfortunately, an article that I read recently stated that only 10% of kids’ lunches include vegetables, and only 33% include fruit.

Presentation Counts!

In the many years that I volunteered for lunch duty, I saw a lot of kids trade part or all of their ‘boring’ lunches with friends whose lunches looked more ‘exciting’, or opt for chicken strips and fries from the cafeteria instead because that’s what a lot of other kids were eating. Some kids don’t want to be the one with the ‘different’ lunch. I remember when I started putting a splash of liquid chlorophyll in my daughters’ water bottles in grade school. Their classmates thought it was kinda weird…until we started calling it ‘Shrek’s Swamp Water’…then everyone wanted in…which leads me to an important point; sometimes the difference between a kid eating or not eating their lunch is all in the presentation, so here are 10 tips for making school lunches more appealing, especially for picky or bored eaters:

  1. Offer variety. Variety gives kids choices, so if you pack a variety of healthy things to munch on, chances are they’ll go for something! Try small servings of several foods, instead of larger servings of two or three foods. Think variety with colour too when it comes to packing fruit and veggies. Not only will a colourful lunch look more interesting, but different colours of fruits and veggies will provide a greater variety of nutrients.
  2. Use creative names. ‘Shrek’s Swamp Water’ sounds better than liquid cholorphyll….and ‘super-sonic vision sticks’ sound better than carrot sticks.
  3. Shape it up. Cookie cutters are a great way to give a lot of lunch and snack foods fun shapes. cookie cutter peppers for webI did this all the time. It takes seconds to cut pieces of cheese, or cucumber slices, or bell pepper pieces into stars, or hearts, or animal shapes.
  4. Deconstruct the meal. All the fancy restaurants seem to be doing it! Instead of a cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich (which will probably get mushy by lunch time), pack up the various sandwich ingredients in Lunch box ideas celery egg saladseparate compartments so that some assembly is required. If you make egg or tuna salad, use hollowed out cucumber halves or celery sticks to hold the filling instead of bread. Try to present a ‘boring’ sandwich in a completely differently way (see next point for yet another option!).
  5. Make kabobs. Kids love eating food on sticks. Lunch box ideas cucumber tomato olivesYou can make kabobs with just about anything: fruits, veggies, meat, cheese. Use small plastic or wooden skewers or even tooth-picks to make mini-kabobs…which brings me to my next point.
  6. Mini-size it. Kids love mini-versions of stuff. Cut sandwiches into multiple smaller pieces (I used to cut sandwiches into several little circles using cookie cutters and we called them flying saucers!); make mini-muffins, pack baby carrots, baby tomatoes, etc.
  7. Go for a dip. Kids love dipping things. Dips that are a good combo of healthy fat and protein include humus, guacamole, and yogurt-based dips. Nut butters make great dips for apple slices and other cut up fruits too!
  8. Pack a party. Pack something fun like a party napkin,  note compressedfancy toothpicks, one of those little cocktail umbrellas, a fun fork or spoon, or a curly straw. You’d be surprised at how something this simple can turn lunch into a bit of a special occasion.
  9. Include notes. I did this all the time – notes that said “I love you”, or “Hope you’re having a great day!” or “Enjoy your super-sonic vision sticks!”.
  10. Use fun & friendly packaging. Use fun and convenient containers. These really help with packing a variety of foods, including ‘deconstructed’ sandwiches or a full box for webvariety of left-overs from last night’s dinner. One of our favourites is the ‘Bento Box’ from Bentology.com. It makes opening up a packed lunch like opening up a bunch of little surprises; in fact, we still use these as adults! I wrote about this product last month. You can check out a variety of  Bento Boxes, as well as other really cool products at the Bentology website and order on-line if you’re interested. You’ll also find some great lunch ideas there.

What About Drinks?

The best option is water. Most kids (and adults for that matter) don’t drink nearly enough, and a lack of water has a huge impact on brain function and overall energy throughout the day. To make water more appealing, you can add cut up fruit, or a bit of fresh squeezed lemon or lime. Note that most commercial fruit juices are just liquid sugar.

It’s a Family Affair

Finally, remember that how you eat has a big influence on your children, so it’s important to set a good example. Kids will pay  more attention to what you do rather than what you say. If you’re packing a healthy lunch for your child and they overhear you saying you’re going to grab lunch at the cafeteria or fast-food joint near your work, your child may want to do the same. It’s also great to involve your children in grocery shopping and food preparation as much as possible. Plan an outing to a weekend farmers market – kids love seeing and tasting the variety of foods available there. Being enthusiastic about buying, preparing, and eating healthy foods as a family will go a long way in establishing healthy eating habits in your kids at school lunch time and beyond!

Enjoy!

Anna

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