Consider this scenario: The alarm goes off at 5:30 am. In a half-awake stupor, you make breakfast for the family and toss a tuna sandwich and a prepackaged container of applesauce into your child’s lunch bag. Fast-forward a few hours and you’re unpacking that same sandwich, now soggy and a tad on the smelly side. You assume the applesauce has been eaten, but you have your suspicions. It’s time to face the lunchtime blues and start paying attention to what goes in the bag, if only to ensure your child is a happy camper—not a hungry one.
You don’t have to resort to prepackaged meals, which are usually loaded with sodium and other hidden unhealthy ingredients
“Every mom goes through that,” says DC dietitian Betsy Ramirez, a mother of two. “You start getting in a rut, and that’s when those Lunchables start looking really good.” But you don’t have to resort to prepackaged meals, which are usually loaded with sodium and other hidden unhealthy ingredients. Creating a nutritious meal that children will actually enjoy can be done with just a few simple tricks, minor adjustments, and engaged participation.
Shop for groceries together
The first step to a successful midday meal is to include your child in the lunch-making process. When possible, Virginia-based dietitian Rima Kleiner says to take children grocery shopping. Allow them to pick out something in the produce section or at the farmers market that they’d like to eat for lunch that week. “Get them involved and make them feel invested,” she says. “That way they have some freedom of choice, which we know is something kids are always fighting for.”
Help them cook
Choose a day of the week and come up with a recipe together that will be a healthy addition to the lunchbox. Ramirez says her son, who is a picky eater, is more likely to eat healthy muffins or even pancakes for lunch if he has had a part in the baking process beforehand.
Let them play with their food
The more interactive the lunch, the better, says Ramirez, who likes to scour Pinterest for creative lunch options. Help your child put ham, cheese, and pita bread on lollipop sticks to create sandwich kebabs, or help him or her cut a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into fun shapes using cookie cutters. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of giving them crackers and slices of cheese,” says dietitian Elana Natker. “They like the idea of assembly and using their hands. It’s a form of playing with food.”
Make a bento box
“It’s very easy to create your own version of a bento box type of lunch,” says Natker, a mother of two. The night before, prepare a meal that contains protein, a fruit or vegetable, and a drink. Try hummus with baby carrots or sliced peppers, mini whole-grain pitas, and a carton of milk. A small bag of popcorn or Pirate’s Booty is great as an extra treat or morning snack, she adds.
Keep healthy staples in the cupboard
For those days when time is in short supply, keeping a few staples in your cupboard and fridge can work wonders. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are quick to make, although Natker recommends swapping the jelly for fruit, such as apple or banana slices. When you’re really in a pinch, Kleiner says, “throwing some of your kid’s favorite cereal into a baggie with a carton of milk and a piece of fruit is a simple fix.” Other nutritious snacks you’ll find in the dietitians’ fridges: yogurt, hummus, hard-boiled eggs, and granola.
In the Bag
Try these tote-ally cool lunch bag styles.
1. ON THE DOT
“Ruby Dots” lunch tote
$13 at Container Store
2. FLYING HIGH
SoYoung “Green Rocket”
$32 at Tabletop
1608 20th St., NW
3. WHALE WATCH
“Whale Blue” lunch box
$19 at wildkin.com
4. SIDE STRIPED
Scout “Cheverly Hill”
doggie bag cooler
$16 at Periwinkle
3815 Livingston St., NW