As a mom who is always nutrition conscious first, I’m counting my blessings with being able to ensure my kids are eating great during their school day–at least while they are still home and in virtual school for the next few weeks. This not only helps them remain easily focused for the rest of the afternoon, but also helps ensure they will be in great moods after school by avoiding a sugar crash midday. (And that helps all of us!) As an aside, my kids are definitely old enough and perfectly capable of making their own lunches, but I’m taking full advantage of this odd moment in history to help reenforce that healthy can also mean tasty and interesting.
I feel so fortunate to have the time available to make my boys’ lunches each day before their break. However, even when I was working full-time and didn’t have much brain power or energy to spare in the way of food each day, I prepped their lunches the night before. On particularly busy weeks, I would make a couple days’ worth of grab-and-go items at a time. This made it easy for them to choose from some healthy options on their way out the door in the morning. No matter what your circumstances are, there are lots of ways to influence our kids’ desire and ability to eat healthier foods. Here are some of the things I am considering now that I have the chance to make their lunches, and will continue to focus on as they return to the hustle and bustle of being back at school.
Plenty of Protein
My kids (maybe even more than most) will be starving in five minutes if I don’t make sure their meal is balanced. A big part of keeping their blood sugar up and avoiding the afternoon slump is ensuring every meal has a healthy-sized portion of protein. We eat meat in our home most days, but we do have one or two meatless days a week. (Shhhh. Don’t tell my kids. I don’t think they’ve noticed!) When we go meatless, I make sure to build the meal around foods like nuts or nut butters, lentils or peas, beans and rice, or Ezekiel (sprouted grain) bread because the protein content in each of these items is high.
Fresh Vegetables and Fruit
Everything fresh counts, so I try to get creative with ways to slip fresh foods in as often as possible. If the serving isn’t obvious to the naked eye, then you can be sure I’ve included fresh celery and onion in the tuna salad, or crisp spinach and ripe tomato on the sandwich. A couple of days out of the week I will make a small side salad, and almost every plate houses a serving of fresh fruit or has a fruit and spinach smoothie on the side. The effects of fresh foods are widely known and discussed, so I know this isn’t new information. For me though, keeping these items at the forefront of my mind when I’m planning meals helps keep me out of the ‘turkey and cheese on bread sandwich with a bag of chips everyday’ rut. (Although, sometimes I might include those items, too!)
A Rotating Mix of Colors and Textures
Presentation goes a long way for everyone, but I think this is mostly what’s kept any complaints over healthier choices at bay. I make sure to include a variety of things to look at that are brightly colored. Literally, I try to capture at least half of ‘the rainbow’ in every meal. This may include a small green salad with some orange and red veggies to garnish, and a mixed serving of fruit, like pineapple and blueberries, in order to fit in a couple of other colorful foods.
I can’t be the only one that appreciates a variety of texture in my meals, so I consider this when making lunches for my kids, too. From the crisp crunch of fresh celery or apples, to the chewiness of cubed cheese or the creaminess of tomato basil soup, the variety of ways I’ve found to switch up the mouth feels of lunch are endless when I remember to select them on purpose.
Easy Variety Within a Budget
Preparing great food that keeps my kids intrigued doesn’t have to mean that the meals are complicated or expensive. It can be easy to find myself in the routine of making the same lunch every day, especially when my mind is preoccupied with so many other things right now. I’ve tried hard to use up my groceries in ways that keep things interesting, but still keep the effort and budget fairly low. This may mean that today’s tuna salad served with crackers will appear again later in the week on a tuna melt, and the apples and oranges that were served solo alongside Monday’s lunch will find themselves in a fruit salad with banana and blueberries by Friday. Many of my chosen ingredients each week make several appearances, but I dress them up differently all week long. So far, the boys seem to dig it and haven’t noticed!
Something Sweet(ish) at Every Meal
My kids (and I’m sure yours, too) tend to prefer sugary snacks when given the choice. We aim for healthy snacks as a majority occurrence in our house, but I still keep treats stocked. I have snack bins in my pantry and refrigerator as a go-to location for my kids’ better-for-you-snacks, but may add a single serving bag or two of treats for each kid to enjoy as they wish during the week (they know to share what’s available equally). I could be totally wrong about this one, but I feel like this gives them the autonomy that teens crave so deeply to choose what they eat, and models what moderation looks like without requiring any direct feedback from parents.
To my mind, the nutritional requirements for lunches are different than snacks, because our kiddos are required to focus for so long after eating. (Not to mention, we also have a football player in our house whose practice takes place after classes and requires plenty of energy.) I’ve noticed that when I keep fruit as a constant on their plates the impending sweet tooth is automatically satisfied, and I don’t find them digging through the pantry after lunch. Having a balance of flavors (like salty, savory, and sweet) leaves them happily full and wanting for nothing after they’ve finished eating. On the days when I’ve tested this theory? Cookies immediately after lunch. Every. Time.
Include Hot Foods, Too
This is something that wouldn’t be realistic for lunches from home on a normal school day, so I’m taking full advantage while my boys are here. They’ve enjoyed lots of different grilled sandwiches, hot soups, quesadillas, and next week I even have their favorite casserole on the menu. (Two lunches for the effort of one when I plan for leftovers they’ll love!) These are things I can assemble the night before while I’m making dinner, so all that’s left to do in the morning is heat it up. It’s kept me out of the kitchen more than I would already be on any given day and added something new and different to the standard lunch menu.
Having the chance to reset what a “good” lunch looks like has been one of the blessings to come out of virtual learning. There are so many things out of my control right now, so I’m focusing on what is in my power to do that helps benefit the health and wellness of my family. It makes me feel good to be able to care for them in this way, and I can see when their faces light up with anticipation that it makes them feel good, too.
My idea of what a healthy lunch looks like is undoubtedly different from yours in one or many ways. This is one of the beautiful things about parenthood, isn’t it? There are a million ways to boost the health and wellness of our families, and they are all ‘right’ when we deem them to be right for us and our kids. I’d love to learn some new ideas from you, too! Will you share what you’re doing for your kids’ lunches in the comments?