The Healthy Lunch Box

A metal lunchboxWhen it’s time to send your children back to school — or decide on what to pack for your own lunch — one of the single-most important things you can do is prepare nutritious meals.

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Not only does a healthy lunch keep you and your children from being groggy and loaded down at school, it helps them establish healthy eating habits for life and have enough energy to succeed each and every day.

The suggestions for school lunches below take into account the age of the child — small kids need small, fun lunches, while older kids need more sustenance without a lot of frills. Some of the lunches here have suggestions on what else to add to the lunchbox; other all around good choices include whole grain crackers and pretzels, crisp vegetables, an occasional bag of chips, fruit, homemade trail mix and a cool drink.

Elementary School Lunches
At this age, children like small, fun lunches that resemble those pre-packaged lunches you can buy in the store.  Many children are picky at this age and only eat what they are familiar with.

Cheese and Tomato Crackers: Spread mini rice crackers or flatbread pita with soft goat cheese or layer with slices of Swiss or mozzarella cheese and horizontally halved grape tomatoes. Add a banana or a snack bag of sliced mandarin oranges.

Mini Sliders: Buy mini burger buns or rolls and top with sliced meatballs. Pack some barbecue sauce or ketchup for dipping. Add a bag of baked whole grain chips, carrot sticks and a frozen box of 100% juice

Pasta Salad: Cook short tubular pasta the night before and toss with olive oil to coat. Add chunks of cheese, snap peas and a little sweet red bell pepper (or other vegetable your child likes).

Middle School Lunches
Packing lunch for middle-schoolers should be pretty simple. They like what they like, and if they ate it for dinner they’ll like it for lunch.

Maple BBQ Pork on a Bun: For dinner, cook pork tenderloin and brush it with your favorite barbecue sauce while it cooks. Save some leftovers for your middle-schoolers lunch.  Slice the tenderloin into thin slices and place on a bun spread with barbecue sauce and shredded carrots. Pack a bag of sweet potato chips, whole grain crackers or baked potato chips.

Picnic Lunch: Leftover oven-fried chicken makes a great lunch. Wrap the chicken in foil or pack it in a reusable container. Pack coleslaw in a separate small container. Add some cornbread or a roll and a lemonade drink pouch.

Turkey-Cheddar Wraps: Wrap thinly sliced roast turkey around cheddar cheese sticks. Serve with a mixture of mustard and finely chopped store-bought mango chutney or apricot jam. Pack whole grain pretzels instead of bread and a bag of air popped popcorn.

High School Lunches
Teenagers are little grown-ups who still rely on you to feed them.  Some of them have sophisticated taste and some just want a lunch that won’t embarrass them to eat while socializing. Most teenagers will tell you what they want, and it’s up to you to take their ideas and make a nutritious lunch. For other teens, here are a few ideas.

Sushi Rice Salad: Cook sushi rice or regular rice according to package instructions. While still warm, add a little sugar dissolved in rice or cider vinegar and toss with a fork. Fold in diced red bell pepper, shredded carrots, cooked and shelled edamame and salt; toss to combine.

Spaghetti Frittata: Fold leftover spaghetti into beaten eggs combined with some grated Parmesan cheese. Pour into a square baking pan and bake at 350 until just set. Cut into rectangles and serve on slices of foccacia or other bread.

Chicken Parmesan Sandwich: Dip chicken cutlets first in flour, then eggs, then in a mix of breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese. Sautee the cutlets until they are golden brown and cooked through. Pack on crusty rolls with greens and a drizzle of lemon juice and olive oil.