Lunches that Pack a Punch

Posted On Thursday, 24 August 2017
Lunches that Pack a Punch

As parents, we all pay a hefty price for the sweet routine the start of the school year brings: packing lunch.

Complaints that top the list for this daily chore are lunches that don't get eaten, time-consuming prep, and balancing healthy choices.

As the school year approaches, try the following tips to lessen the lunch-packing pressure:

1) Break It Down

Kids often prefer unmixed foods. Keeping things mostly separate gives them a chance to become comfortable with the taste and texture of foods one by one. When ready, they get to combine foods on their own terms. And, all the new bento-style lunchboxes are perfect for keeping things easily compartmentalized. Try these ideas for build-your-own meals:

  • Nachos – pack seasoned ground turkey (it’s fine served room temperature), avocado slices, diced tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, mild salsa, and corn tortilla chips.
  • Pizza – pack mini pita rounds, marinara sauce, shredded mozzarella cheese, sliced black olives, and roasted broccoli.
  • Rice bowl – pack brown rice, shelled edamame, and cooked tofu cubes (we marinate ours in honey, soy sauce, and garlic first).

2) Make Muffin Tin Minis

As your child gets more comfortable with combined foods, break the sandwich cycle by baking savory bite-sized creations in a mini muffin tin. The general technique is to spray the tin with cooking spray, fill with a simple mixture of protein + veggies + grains and something to make it all stick together, then bake for about 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Muffin tin minis are a particularly great way to fit in fish, a healthful protein that fuels kids’ brains with omega-3s, which help build healthy brains. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage kids to eat 2-3 servings each week to reap the health benefits of seafood. Try the following delicious muffin tin mini combinations:

  • Tuna mac-n-cheese bites – a great use for leftover mac-n-cheese, mushrooms or broccoli would also make yummy mix-ins.
  • Mini salmon cake muffins – bake your favorite salmon cake recipe in a muffin tin and serve with plain yogurt + a squeeze of lemon for dip and sweet potato fries.
Bonus: Muffin tin minis can be frozen. To do this, let them cool to room temperature, place on a small baking sheet, and cover with plastic wrap. Once frozen, transfer them to an airtight container or baggie and keep in the freezer for up to three months. To thaw muffin tin minis, place them in the fridge overnight.

3) Think Outside the Lunchbox

Drinks are an often-overlooked place to incorporate nutrients into kids’ lunches. Chill a steel bottle in the fridge before filling and packing for drinks that stay cool and refreshing for hours. Try the following liquid lunch ideas:

  • Agua fresca – puree fruit (seedless varieties like cantaloupe, pineapple, and watermelon work best), water, and a spoonful of sugar in the blender and you’ve got a sweet, cool addition to lunch.
  • Creamy coconut banana milkshake – blend coconut milk, a banana, a swirl of vanilla extract, a handful of ice, and a dash of cinnamon.
  • Chocolate strawberry yogurt drink – blend one part milk to two parts strawberry yogurt, a handful of fresh strawberries, a spoonful of cocoa powder, and a swirl of honey.
Lastly, keep in mind this mealtime mantra to reduce stress: “Once lunch is packed, my job is done!”

It’s tempting to fall into the role of lunchbox sleuth in which you closely analyze your little ones’ leftovers. But, there are a number of factors beyond your control -- snacks offered at school, rained out recess, silliness with friends at lunchtime -- that play into exactly how much and what your kids eat each day.

As long as you are offering a variety of mostly nourishing foods, you can let the lunch-packing pressure go.

Jennifer McGuire, MS, RD

Jennifer McGuire, MS, RD, has a decade of experience writing and talking about healthful food.

A respected nutrition resource for the media, fellow healthcare professionals, policymakers, and food companies including the National Fisheries Institute, Jennifer is passionate about helping families figure out mealtime.

She lives in Dallas with her husband and three young sons.

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