Skip to main content

Lunch ideas for back to school


Making lunches for their school-age children seems to be the bane of most parents' existence. But packing nutritious food that kids will eat doesn't have to be mutually exclusive.

Registered dietitian Shannon Crocker finds herself in the same boat as many parents with two young sons of her own, one of whom is a picky eater.

``One of the biggest complaints that I hear from parents in the school year is the kids don't eat their lunch,'' Crocker said in an interview from Ancaster, Ont.

``They don't eat their sandwiches, they send back their fruit, and so for me it's all about trying to come up with very simple ideas that the kids will actually eat that are still pretty good for them,'' says Crocker, 44, who has been a dietitian for 18 years. She has focused for the last dozen years on school and childhood nutrition.

``I'm a big proponent of making sure it's nutrient-packed food because if they're only going to get a chance to eat a little bit it better be something that's pretty good, that's going to give them the energy they need to get through the rest of the day and the nutrients they need to fuel their brain.''

She recommends a snack-style lunch, made up of types of food that can be packed in small reusable, unbreakable containers. An ice pack should be included to keep foods cold.

Cheese slices, whole-grain crackers and cucumber slices can be stacked or eaten separately. Other picks are whole-grain ``fishy'' crackers, carrots and leftover grilled chicken.

Leftover homemade chicken fingers made for dinner can be taken cold for lunch. Add a tortilla or pita, some grated cheese and kids can make a wrap.

Sandwiches are tricky, Crocker notes. Many schools won't allow peanut or almond butter and not all kids like eggs or tuna. As a dietitian she doesn't recommend many highly processed deli-style luncheon meats. Home-cooked turkey, chicken and roast beef are better choices.

For variety, try different breads _ whole-grain sliced bread, whole-wheat pita or a multi-grain roll.

Kids may only have time to take a few bites of a whole apple, so slice it ahead of time. Pack the slices, grapes or orange segments in containers so they don't get squashed.

Kids love dips. A dip for vegetables can be as easy as some bottled salad dressing. Or whip one up on the weekend and pack it in little containers in the fridge.

To team with fruit, a dip can be as simple as purchased fruit-flavoured yogurt. Or add a splash of vanilla to Greek-style yogurt with a bit of honey or brown sugar.

Rather than buying chewy granola bars topped with icing or containing caramel or chocolate chips, she prefers making healthy snacks so she can control the portion sizes and ingredients.

There are many recipes for easy no-bake squares that don't include nuts or peanut butter, which are forbidden at most schools, she says. Make them on the weekend, cut them up and freeze them, then pop them into lunches.

Another option is homemade mini muffins made with whole-grain flour and oatmeal.

For kids who like crunch in their lunch, Crocker suggests homemade snack mix. She puts out ingredients like whole-wheat cereal squares, dried fruit, popcorn and seeds if there are no allergies.

``Kids can make up their own munchie mix. The kids really enjoy it because they can tailor it to themselves and they feel like they're having fun, but as a mom and as a dietitian you know you're giving them something good, so you can feel good about it too.''

Don't forget a nutritious beverage. Water or milk can be poured into a reusable bottle. All provinces offer a milk program of some sort, and Crocker prefers the dairy product over many commercial packaged drinks and juices.

``You're filling your kids up with sugar water with some colouring. How do you expect them to actually then focus and pay attention in school and do well in school and have the energy to get through school?''

Advance preparation on the weekend can make getting lunches ready during the week a lot easier. Chop up veggies and fruit, make dip and chicken fingers, and store them in the refrigerator.

``The kids can go to the fridge with their little reusable containers and dish out their own veggies and put their own fruit in little cups and that can really help a lot for parents to take off some of that pressure. We're all pretty busy.

``Getting the kids involved not only helps you as a parent but they may be more likely to eat it as well because they've got a bit of vested interest in that 'I made this. I put this together. This is what I wanted in my lunch.'

``And as long as you as the parent is making sure that those choices are healthy options for them to choose from, then it's all good.''

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds