School time for kids means a renewed focus on healthy lunches for both parents and kids.
“Lunches, for most people, are one-third of the food they consume for the day, so that constitutes a huge proportion of our dietary intake,” says Melissa Nelson Laska, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota in Epidemiology and Community Health.
Laska adds that because lunch is often a time when parents are away from their kids, it’s important to pack healthy items the child likes, or the food may end up in the trash. “Creative options with different textures and foods keep it interesting for kids,” says Laska.
Shake up you and your kids’ lunches and snacks with the following heart-healthy ideas:
Portable fruits and vegetables
If it’s portable and preferred by your kids, pack it. Laska suggests cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, fruit slices (such as apple or pear) and any kind of whole fruit that packs well. Strive for a variety of color and textures to keep it interesting. Try making a fruit salad for a special treat.
While fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins and nutrients, they don’t always fill you up. Choose a dip that complements the fruit or vegetables, such as individual packages of hummus (or homemade hummus) or peanut butter (choose peanut butter with no added sugars or added salt). We recommend these heart-healthy snack options:
- Apple and pear slices to dip into low fat or non-fat plain yogurt mixed with peanut butter.
- Carrot, celery and sweet pepper strips to dip into hummus, fresh salsa or homemade bean dip.
- Whole grain crackers (choose crackers low in sodium, saturated and trans fats) or slices of grilled low sodium tofu (a soybean product) to dunk into low-sodium vegetable or tomato soup.
- Unsalted sunflower seeds, crushed whole wheat cereal and sliced banana to mix into low fat vanilla yogurt (no added sugars) to eat with a spoon like a sundae.
“For some kids, dips make fruits and vegetables more appealing. They can also provide a contrast in nutrients so you’re getting a protein or healthy fat along with the fruits and vegetables to make the snack more satiating,” says Laska.
If you and your kids are able (and willing) to take along a plastic container and fork, whole-grain pasta salads are a great way to mix things up. Choose brown rice, whole-grain penne, couscous or other items and load it up with your favorite vegetables or even fruits. Check out this recipe for a Brown Rice and Black Bean Salad or this Couscous and Fruit Salad.
Talk to your kids about what they want
When you involve your kids in their nutrition decisions, you’ll get valuable input, enthusiasm and a chance to talk about food choices. Ask your children what they like, take them shopping with you and let them help pack at least part of the lunch. “Just having your child be a part of the process can help the acceptance of the lunch and ensure that you’re giving something that they’ll eat,” says Laska. “It can also be nice family time together, where you’re providing conversation around health and healthy foods. I would definitely encourage that.”
Learn more ideas on how to pack a healthy school lunch at heart.org.