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Pack a Lunch Box Like a Pro

Back to school means new sweaters, pencil boxes and busy mornings. So how do you put together a meal that is nutritious and also appeals to your picky eater? A little planning.

“Parents need to be pretty intentional to make a packed lunch healthy,” said Kim Iszler, a registered dietitian at Samaritan Pediatrics in Corvallis. “A Lunchables or Cup of Noodles is not going to do it.”

Healthy lunches include all of the food groups: Protein, veggies, fruit, grains and dairy or dairy alternative. Iszler recommends following the USDA MyPlate, an updated version of the food pyramid, as a good visual to help parents get enough of each food group.

“When I meet with parents to counsel them about nutrition I tell them that food doesn’t have to be hard or fancy but it does have to be intentional,” she said. “Not all of us are used to planning for all the food groups for lunch and dinner, so at the beginning it will take some work to consciously consider how to give your children the nutrition they need.”

The Picky Eater

Picky eaters are a challenge for parents, no question.

“The fix for picky eating happens at the dinner table,” said Iszler. “We need to practice meals together in the evening so it’s not a weird food in a lunch box. Sometimes it takes kids 20 times trying a new food before they like it. It comes down to practice.”

Iszler recommends introducing new foods at dinner with a “safe” food. For instance if broccoli is new, serve it steamed together with carrots at first. You don’t need to suffer with children who won’t eat anything but white bread and buttered pasta help them learn to like a variety of foods by preparing it in a tasty manner and enjoying it as a family. 

Working Lunch

When packing lunches for kids, planning is the key.

“Parents need to make it as easy on themselves as they can,” said Iszler. “When you get home from the grocery store, immediately wash, chop and package fruit and veggies so they are ready to throw in lunches that week.”

To remove the “what to fix” stress, Iszler recommends having only five or six meals in rotation for lunches. This makes it easier to shop for, but gives kids enough variety that they aren’t bored.

So where do chips or Twinkies fit in?

“Kids should be sticking to no more than one ‘wrapper’ a day,” said Iszler. “That means one traditional snack food like chips. There’s a place in life for these foods but we don’t want it to take the place of something nutritious that their body needs.”

Iszler shares these tips for making a healthy lunch easier:

Make a Plan

The day before you do your grocery shopping, plan lunches and make a list of what you need. Prep fruits and veggies when you get home.

Involve Kids

Give them choices when you’re making your shopping list. “Do you want to eat carrots and cucumber for lunch this week or bell pepper and snap peas?” This will minimize food waste because you’ll buy things they want to eat and help avoid surprises in their lunch.

Read Labels

Not all bread is whole grain and not all fruit cups are packed in water. Read the ingredients to make sure you aren’t getting extra sugars, preservatives or fillers in your food.

Have a Back up for Fresh

Use whole fruit and veggies when possible, but an applesauce cup is better than nothing.

Pick & Choose Convenience Foods

Individually wrapped peanut butter or hummus cups, cream cheese, cheese sticks and yogurt aren’t always the cheapest option but it can help make a nutritious meal and you might be more inclined to use them if they’re easy. If you have the time to individually pack your own to make mornings easier, go for it!

Download our Lunch Box Building Blocks Grocery List and let your kids help create a nutritious mea!