If your child's idea of the perfect school lunch consists of chips and candy, your assignment is to upgrade those brown-bag meals so they merit an A-plus for nutrition. Getting your kids involved is a great place to start. As soon as kids can open the refrigerator door and make a sandwich, they are ready to start making their own lunches for school. Keep nutritious options within arm's reach — on a low shelf in the refrigerator or pantry, for instance. This way, your child will be more likely to reach for trail mix, string cheese, and low-fat yogurt when she packs her lunch.
A New Twist on PB&J
Sandwiches are the central component in most lunchboxes, and some kids will happily tote peanut butter and jelly day after day for years. That's perfectly okay since peanut butter contains both protein and healthy fats. To sneak in some extra fiber, use whole wheat bread, pita, or rolls. If your child is resistant to whole wheat, try a few different brands — sometimes kids are turned off by the color and consistency of one brand but will like another. If they still don't like whole wheat, try making the sandwich with one slice of white and one of whole wheat.
Moving beyond PBJs, which are quick to make and don't need to be refrigerated, consider sandwiches made with lean ham, turkey, and roast beef. Avoid bologna, salami, and other processed meats, since they're high in fat. Do tuck some lettuce into the sandwich for color and crunch. If your child likes tomato, pack it separately in a small plastic bag. (This helps avoid SBS — soggy bread syndrome.) Adding a little mayo is okay. If you have time and your kids are young enough to appreciate this, use cookie cutters to cut the sandwiches into fun shapes.
For a nice variation from the usual sandwich, try pinwheels, made by tightly rolling up a filling (roast beef, turkey, tuna salad) in a whole wheat tortilla, then cutting the roll with a sharp knife into three-quarter-inch rounds. Your child can also make veggie pinwheels by spreading a tortilla with low-fat cream cheese, arranging thinly sliced cucumber, tomato and grated carrot on top, then rolling up. Cut the roll into thin slices.
To go with the "main course," pack some fruit or vegetables. Fill a small plastic bag of baby-cut carrots, edamame, cucumber slices, green pepper rings, or broccoli or cauliflower florets. Rather than whole apples and oranges, slice oranges into segments and apples into wedges. Dip the apple slices into water mixed with lemon juice (to prevent browning; orange slices don't need this treatment). Pack individually sized cans of diced peaches, pineapple chunks, or mandarin orange slices in juice or light syrup, or mini containers of no-sugar-added applesauce. (Be sure to add a plastic spoon or fork.)
No lunch is complete without dessert, but don't hand your child the bag of cookies and let him put a stack into the bag. Instead, include two or three small cookies, or maybe a little piece of chocolate.
If you're like most parents, time is of the essence and you're best off making lunches (or supervising their making) the night before. No matter when or what you and your child pack for his lunch, keep it safe to eat by making sure it's well chilled. Insulated lunch bags or boxes with a reusable ice pack work well, but you can go more low-tech than that if you want. Fill a water bottle half full and freeze overnight. The next morning, fill the rest with water. It will keep your child's lunch cold, and the water will melt and be ready to drink by lunchtime. Or freeze a juice box and put that in the lunchbox. It doubles as an ice pack and a beverage once it thaws.
And finally, don't forget about leftovers. There's no rule that says a school lunch can't consist of cold pizza. In fact, it may turn out to be such a cool lunch the other kids will be begging him to trade. Chances are he'll stick with the pizza — and resist the chips and candy!