Need some lunch box ideas? Whether your child prefers their food in separate containers, combined into one main entree, or a little of both, here is a helpful guide to ensure they get a balanced lunch.
Even us dietitians get stuck in a rut when it comes to packing lunch boxes. We are all creatures of habit and it can be hard to come up with new ideas on what to pack. (I am totally guilty of sending too many baby carrots and cucumber slices!)
But fortunately, I have some simple ideas and a helpful guide to help you out!
Lunch Box Guide
To build a balanced lunch simply choose a food from each category:
- Protein (dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, tofu, beans, legumes, seeds)
- Starch (choose whole grain most of the time)
+ Water bottle and/or milk
The “extra” could be a dessert, a sweetened yogurt or milk, a favorite snack food, etc. If you pack a sweet treat every day, make it a little one such as a small homemade cookie, a few chocolate graham crackers, or a brownie bite.
If your child needs more food, you can include more than one of each of the first four groups, especially the veggie group, which most kids fall short on. After all, the total veggie intake goal increases as kids get older. A 5-year old boy needs 1.5 cups of veggies a day, but by age 9 that goal has increased to 2.5 cups of veggies a day!
The bento-style of packing food can help ensure that you send a nutritious, balanced lunch. The little containers and compartments remind you to add variety and keep the portions from getting too big.
You may end up adding more than one food from a category, for example, this photo shows hummus and cheese, both of which could be considered part of the protein group. This is totally ok and will only help increase variety and nutrient composition of the lunchbox (as long as you aren’t doubling up on dessert or snack foods!).
Combo Food Lunch Box Ideas
Combo foods are those that include more than one food group in them already, such as soups and sandwiches. Many kids like these foods from day 1, and if so they add a whole other list of options for the lunch box. Other kids don’t start gravitating to these foods until they are a little older–everyone is different.
My 10-year old seemed to transition from being a fairly picky lunch eater to one who loves–and wants–a variety of foods in his lunch box between 2nd and 3rd grade. Last fall his favorite was the “sub sandwich.” He also loves the upgraded lunchbox sandwich, a BL (bacon and leafy greens on a toasted whole grain), pasta and peas, chicken noodle soup, and Swedish pancakes. Lucky for me he also eats whatever fruits and veggies I send him. (Let’s just say that is not the case with my 8-year old!)
The above picture also shows some packaged food options. While I try to minimize the amount of packaged foods I send, they are good to have around for those super busy mornings or when you are out of other options. Just look for food that is minimally processed and low in added sugar and salt.
I hope this gives you some good ideas on what to pack in your child’s lunch box. Remember, even us dietitians don’t pack a perfect lunch every day…(and sometimes when we think that we have it comes home barely touched)! Just do your best and be sure to get your child involved with planning and packing their lunches. (My goal this year is to get kids packing their own lunches on most days–we will see how it goes!)