These simple ingredient swaps will help boost the nutrition of your lunch without sacrificing the flavors you and your family love.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
August 13, 2020
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Lunch can sometimes be left until the last minute, especially when your schedule is packed or different from your usual. Luckily, a quick lunch that can be packed to-go can be easy and healthy with these tips. Small swaps can make a big difference in helping you get a healthy lunch ready that the whole family will love, even when you are on the go.

Pictured Recipe: Picnic Bento Lunch

1. Swap Out: Potato Chips

Swap In: Popcorn

Satisfy the crunch you crave, plus a nutritious boost by switching out traditional potato chips for popcorn. Many people don't realize that popcorn is actually a whole grain, and is higher in fiber than potato chips. One serving of popcorn, about 3 1/2 cups, contains almost 4 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein and only 110 calories, compared to a small bag of plain potato chips with 149 calories, 1.7 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of fiber. Popcorn also has less sodium per serving, especially if you make your own popcorn from scratch versus the buttered and salted microwave bags. Making your own popcorn allows you to customize flavors to make exactly the lunch side that you want, from Everything Bagel to Cinnamon-Sugar.

2. Swap Out: Gummies

Swap In: Naturally-Sweet Fruit

If you or your kids are craving a sweet side to go with lunch, swap out gummies that can be packed with added sugars for naturally-sweet fruit—fresh, dehydrated or this healthy take on Fruit Roll-Ups, Mango Fruit Leather. Fruit is higher in fiber and other important nutrients, has fewer calories and contains no added sugar. Fresh fruit also has a high water content to help keep your family hydrated on hot, busy summer days. You can even cut them into cute shapes, like these Rainbow Fruit Kebabs. For kids who are on the go, swapping in our 100% fruit Mango Fruit Leather recipe or store-bought dehydrated fruit, is perfect for an on-the-go snack with no added sugar.

3. Swap Out: Soda

Swap In: Seltzer

Sometimes you crave carbonation to switch it up from plain water. Next time, grab a seltzer instead of a soda. Seltzers leave out the added sugar and come in many unique flavors, and you can even add a splash of fruit juice for some natural sweetness or ice cubes with herbs for an additional flavor boost. Some brands even have cute cans that kids will love. Cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages is a great way to boost your overall health, stay hydrated and even lose weight.

4. Swap Out: Croutons

Swap In: Nuts or Seeds

Any salad is elevated by a crunchy topping. Swap in nuts or seeds for croutons on a salad for a healthy alternative packed with nutrition. Nuts and seeds have more fiber, protein and nutrients than plain croutons. They are also lower in sodium, with one ounce of pumpkin seeds containing 5 milligrams of sodium, compared to 200 milligrams of sodium for one ounce of plain croutons.

5. Swap Out: Sugary Snack Bars

Swap In: Trail Mix

Though these foods are made from similar ingredients, trail mix gives you all of the healthy fats, protein and nutrients you would be getting in a snack bar, without the added sugar used to sweeten and hold together the bar. The combination of healthy ingredients also means that trail mix will help sustain your energy levels through the afternoon, versus crashing an hour later because of excess sugar that spikes, then quickly drops blood sugar. As an added bonus, trail mix won't melt if left in a backpack on a hot day! Make your own trail mix to make it more affordable and fit your taste preferences.

6. Swap Out: Candy Bars

Swap In: Chocolate-Covered Nuts

Chocolate is an excellent midday pick-me-up, and it even has some health benefits too, like lowering your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Pairing it with nuts, which are made up of healthy fats, will help make this just-sweet-enough snack satisfying and give you more staying power. Chocolate-covered nuts will also be higher in protein, and much lower in sugar than a traditional candy bar, so you won't crash like you would after eating a whole candy bar.

7. Swap Out: Sour Candy

Swap In: Frozen Grapes

Frozen grapes are a delicious summer snack that kids will crave. Simply throw a bag of grapes in the freezer for a few hours and you have a snack that rivals any popsicle or sour candy. Grapes, regardless of if they're fresh or frozen, are higher in fiber and nutrients than candy, and have no added sugar. They are hydrating and refreshing to help kids and adults cool down after spending time outside on sunny days. Just note that frozen grapes thaw quickly and are best to be enjoyed right away, instead of packed for later.

8. Swap Out: White Bread

Swap In: Whole-Wheat Bread

This is a swap that you (or your kids) will hardly even notice. Whole grain bread is higher in nutrients and protein than white bread, and even has 3 times more fiber per slice (2.2 grams of fiber in whole-wheat bread compared to 0.7 grams in white bread). Same goes for other grains in salads or bowls. Choose whole-wheat pastas when you can. All of these swaps will help you meet the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendation of making at least half of your grains whole grains.

Bottom Line

When it comes to eating healthier as a family, little swaps can go a long way. These tips prove that choosing a nutritious food doesn't mean sacrificing the flavors you love. From refreshing midday treats like frozen grapes and chocolate dipped nuts to satisfying snacks like hummus and vegetables, these swaps will help the whole family feel full and nourished all afternoon.