Lunch Able

Navigating the crossroads of tasty and healthy when it comes to sustainable lunch ideas for the school-age kid is a common predicament. To help bridge the divide, here are several tips to jump-start lunchtime creativity.

Amy Baier and Abeer Al Otaiba are co-chairs of the Children's Ball for Children’s National 
Medical Center on April 11. Photograph by Greg Powers. Photograph by Kate Warren. Photograph by Kate Warren.

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.


“Ruby Dots” lunch tote
$13 at Container Store
Area Locations


SoYoung “Green Rocket” 
lunch box

$32 at Tabletop 

1608 20th St., NW



“Whale Blue” lunch box 

$19 at


Scout “Cheverly Hill” 
doggie bag cooler 

$16 at Periwinkle 

3815 Livingston St., NW