By Kathy Fang
When I plan out what I want to pack for my daughter’s lunch for the week, I always think about a balanced meal. For growing kids, a healthy meal means providing all the essential nutrients they need to develop both physically and mentally.
Tips to Planning a Healthy Packed Lunch
- That means they should be having a starch, protein, vegetable and a little fruit. To make parenting easier, I like to rotate between 3 starches, rice, pasta and bread. Keeping it simple and less stressful as we aren’t all master chefs in the kitchen.
- As far as protein goes, you can get creative but honestly sticking to proteins your kids will eat is key. I’ve learned that my 3 years old daughter only likes chicken, fish, shrimp, ground beef, and ham. That means I’ll rotate between these proteins every day and pair it with the 3 starches I listed above.
- Vegetables are probably the trickiest with kids. I’ve never met a kid who loved all vegetables. How you prepare them also matters a lot, so again keeping it simple and tasty is key. Vegetables that I’ve found to be fantastic for packed lunches have been, corn off the cob, edamame beans, raw cucumbers, carrots, celery, cold blanched crunchy broccoli, and basic green salad with dressing on the side. These vegetables go great with dressings or dips that your kid can pair it with and taste delicious when enjoyed cold.
- Lastly I like to add a little fruit to the meal if their midday snack doesn’t include fruit. I like to stick dairy (yogurt or milk into their breakfast routine) and lastly cheese into their snack routine (crackers, cheese, fruit etc).
6 Packed Lunch Ideas for Every Kid Healthy Week
Now that you have the basic foundation of what makes a healthy packed lunch, below are some ideas of packed lunch I’ve made in the past that you can try your hand at.
I LOVE making bolognase for my family. It’s the BEST way to sneak in a ton of vegetables your kids may not like. I like adding, chopped kale, carrots, celery, chopped spinach, mushrooms, and squash into my meat sauce. Upon finishing my sauce, I add a homemade bechamel sauce (roux plus whole milk) along with parmesan or feta to amp up the dairy (calcium). This is why I call this pasta Popeye’s, I literally feel like my kids are going to grow big and strong after eating a plate of my meat sauce tossed with pasta.
I pack my pasta in a thermos so my daughter can enjoy a hot meal for lunch. I remember growing up and watching friends of mine eat cold pasta packed in tupperware. And while that works as well, nothing is more comforting than a hot meal. These days there are so many fun thermos to purchase for kids, it’s a good investment that I promise you will use.
As I mentioned above, my daughter is a huge fan of fish. Fish is rather tricky to prepare and keep delectable in a packed lunch. Besides tuna salad or tuna sandwich, I found myself struggling to pack a nicely cooked piece of fish for my daughter until I discovered how easy unagi was to prepare. Purchase frozen unagi, cut into small kid friendly portions, wrap up and freeze.
When you are ready to prepare your kids lunch in the morning, simply unwrap one piece of unagi, toss it on a hot non stick pan and pan sear on both sides for 3 minutes. I prepare rice the night before so I can reheat it in the microwave for 40 seconds before packing it into her lunch box. I add a side of raw cucumbers tossed in a light sesame dressing and sprinkle chia seeds for added nutrients. The beauty of unagi is that, even if it’s warm or cold, the flavor and the texture of the fish remains the same and tastes just as good.
I know some may think fried rice sounds unhealthy to serve. But in actuality, fried rice made at home, your way, is not unhealthy and can be a delicious way to get your kids to eat some of their basic food groups. I would say most kids can’t say no to fried rice. It’s really a perfect one pot meal. I toss in frozen vegetables such as corn, carrots, peas, but it can be any vegetables your kids like.
One whole egg provides essential nutrients and protein which is a plus. You can add another protein of their choose, shrimp, chicken, beef, pork, anything your kids enjoys. And lastly, I like to use avocado oil when I do stir fries. So now you’ve got some healthy oils and omegas mixed into your rice. You can also try brown rice, quinoa or riced cauliflower as rice substitutes. Store in a thermos and you’ve got a complete meal. Throw in some fruit on the side and your kid will be a happy satisfied camper.
Macaroni Chicken Noodle Soup
Ahhhh chicken noodle soup. Another classic favorite of ours right? So why not pack it as a lunch? This lunch is especially nice during the fall and winter when it’s chilly out. If you can’t make your own broth, just purchase chicken broth from a store, add shredded chicken, pasta, vegetables and simmer together before packing.
Sometimes I’ll toss in fun shaped hams to change it up. Invest in a little cutter so you can jazz up the meals. As you can see this one pot meal includes yet again all your major basics; starch, protein, and vegetables.
The quintessential lunch box meal! Every childhood memory includes this fan fav and so of course this has to show up on the daily rotation. Sandwiches allow for some variety as you can switch up the proteins that go inside the bread, the spreads and the veggies. I like to go with nitrate free deli meats and add organic cheese and some kind of raw crunchy vegetable. Skip the unhealthy chips as a side and go for a healthier crunchy replacement.
These days there are better chip alternatives, ones made with beans, whole grains, brown rice, seeds, etc. I also like to pack yogurts that have vegetables in them so they get an extra boost of veggies.
When I say homemade, I mean it’s not the ramen you buy from the packet. The ones from the packet are definitely not healthy. This however is a great Asian rendition of Chicken Noodle Soup. To make the flavors similar to Ramen broth, you can add seasonings such as dashi powder, soy sauce, or miso paste. These will instantly change the flavor profile of your chicken broth. I like to use buckwheat soba noodles, but any sort of dry noodles your kid likes, you can use, just cook until al dente.
Top the noodles with a protein your kid loves, leftover roasted chicken, leftover pot roast etc, and add some lightly blanched leafy greens, spinach, bok choy, kale or swiss chard is always great. Separate the noodles and toppings from the broth so the noodles don’t expand and absorb all the broth while it sits.
When your kid opens their lunch, they simply pour the broth over the noodles and toppings and enjoy! Another hot fancy meal your kid will be thrilled to show off to friends. And of course, covers the basic food groups.
Additional Tips to a Packed Lunch
- When choosing your starches, you can always go healthier. Opt for brown rice rather than white, always go for organic everything, try buckwheat noodles, or whole wheat bread for sandwiches.
- Amp up your meal with nutrients by using healthy oils or seeds, like avocado oil, grapeseed oil, chia seeds, or flax seeds.
- The biggest key takeaway on packing lunches is to make sure your kids eat a balanced diet. Include the major food groups in some sort of way and call it a day.
- And lastly, stay away from pre-packaged meals. Anything that is premade and sold frozen or shelf stable has additives in it, a long list of ingredients you can’t even read all the way through.
Try sticking with real foods you cook and prepare in your own kitchen as much as you can.