4 Healthy Foods to Pack in Your Kid's Lunchbox

By: Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.

Help fuel your kiddo’s young brain and body with these lunch foods.

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Pictured Recipe: Rainbow Bento Lunch for Kids

Packing lunch for your kids can be tricky. You want to offer healthy foods, but also make sure they eat something. And since no parent has extra time to waste, putting together lunch needs to be quick. So how can you help them eat healthy when they're off at school? Including a protein, vegetable, fruit, whole grain and fun extra (think a few chocolate chips) is a great place to start (learn more about the only formula you need to pack a bento lunch for your kids). These four super foods can be a great addition to any lunchbox, snack or breakfast and help fuel young brains and bodies.

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Pictured Recipe: Kitty-Cat Oatmeal Bowl

For Breakfast: Oatmeal

Reams of studies show that fueling the brain with breakfast is important for thinking, acting and learning. And children who are undernourished perform poorly on cognitive tasks. But not just any breakfast will do: research shows that fueling your kids with slower-burning carbohydrates (also called low-glycemic-index foods) like oatmeal instead of faster-burning, or high-glycemic-index, breakfast foods (think: sugary cereals) helps them to maintain their concentration and attention throughout the school morning. If oatmeal isn’t popular, try bran cereals or whole-wheat bagels.

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Pictured Recipe: Tex-Mex Bento Box

For Lunch: Beans

Studies show that being even mildly iron-deficient affects learning, memory and attention. Luckily, restoring iron levels to normal also restores cognitive function. And beans are a good vegetarian source of iron. If beans aren’t of interest, here are some other iron-rich food ideas: dark leafy greens, meat, poultry, fish or soy (tofu, edamame/soybeans).

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For Lunch: Chocolate Milk

During childhood and adolescence, the body uses calcium to build strong bones—a process that's all but complete by the end of the teen years. Yet most kids (adults too, actually) don’t get their recommended daily dose of calcium or vitamin D. Serving your kid milk—plain or chocolate—with lunch is a great way to get more of both of those nutrients. In fact, research shows that children who drink milk at lunch are the only ones who come close to meeting their daily calcium recommendations. And despite all those chocolate milk naysayers, compared to kids who drink plain milk, children who drink flavored milk consume more milk overall (both unflavored and flavored) and fewer soft drinks and sweetened fruit drinks. Plus, there is no difference in the BMI (Body Mass Index) of children who drink flavored milk compared with plain milk or nonmilk drinkers. Is your kid not a milk drinker? Try low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese instead.

 

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Pictured Recipe: Pizza Roll-Up Bento Lunch

For Snack: Watermelon

Just as its name implies, watermelon is 92 percent water—and a great way to help your child stay hydrated (about 20 percent of our daily fluid intake comes from food). Staying hydrated is so essential because it keeps your memory sharp, your mood stable and your motivation intact. When your kid is well-hydrated, he or she can think through a problem more easily. Researchers hypothesize that not having enough water could reduce oxygen flow to the brain or temporarily shrink neurons—or being thirsty could simply distract you. Daily water needs for kids range by age: kids 1-3 years need about 5 ½ cups (44 ounces) a day, 4-8 years need a little more than 7 cups (about 57 ounces), boys 9-13 years need just over 10 cups (81 ounces), girls 9-13 years need nearly 9 cups (71 ounces), boys 14-18 need just shy of 14 cups (111 ounces) and girls 14-18 need just over 9 1/2 cups (77 ounces) of fluid a day. If you don’t have watermelon on hand, try cucumbers or strawberries.

 

Watch: How to Pack a Healthy Bento Box Lunch

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