Lunch is a great time to expose kids to a variety of flavors and textures by serving familiar foods in different ways. But meals don't need to be overly fussy or complex to be delicious and appealing. It's possible to serve at least a week's worth of fun and healthy kids' lunches using many of the same ingredients, and many can be prepped ahead. Follow these simple tips for planning out your meals and then try our five kid-friendly lunch ideas to pack for school below.
Planning kids' lunches in advance saves time (for you!) and keeps things exciting (for them!). Make a list of five to eight reliable main-dish "templates" (see some ideas, below) and rotate them into your plan each week. For example: wraps, pizza, mini sandwiches, finger foods with dip, pasta salad, yogurt parfait, and breakfast for lunch.
Consider creating multiple main dishes with the same ingredients—like using whole-grain English muffins for mini pizzas one day and a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich the next.
Whole or sliced fruit and raw or lightly steamed vegetables are perfect lunch side dishes for kids. Yogurt tubes and string cheese are portable and a great way to add an extra dairy serving. Add a serving of healthy fats with sliced avocado or mixed nuts and seeds. Popcorn, dry cereal and granola bars add crunch and fiber.
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As a general guideline, aim to offer a serving each of whole grains, protein, vegetables and fruit at each meal. Pick two to three foods from each category to use for lunches throughout the week.
Set aside 20 minutes over the weekend for some simple meal prep. Completing a few easy tasks in advance—like slicing vegetables, making hard-boiled eggs or assembling quesadillas—cuts down on time spent making lunches during the busy week.
If you're packing a lunch for younger kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you avoid giving these foods to kids younger than 4 years old, because they are considered a choking hazard: hot dogs, nuts and seeds, chunks of meat or cheese, whole grapes, popcorn, chunks of peanut butter, chunks of raw vegetables, raw carrots. If you serve grapes or cherry tomatoes to young children, cut them in half lengthwise, or quarter them (no larger than 1/2 inch).
Here are five easy and healthy kids' lunches you can make using the same basic ingredients, plus a shopping list and meal-prep plan.
Make colorful crunchy veggies even more appealing by rolling them into kid-friendly sushi. Top a whole-grain tortilla with ranch dressing, cream cheese or hummus, an assortment of sliced vegetables, like bell peppers, and avocado. Roll tightly, then slice crosswise into bite-size pieces.
Quesadillas are easy to make ahead, pack up well, and can be eaten cold or at room temperature. Keep things simple with cheese and canned black beans, or tuck in a few leftovers from dinner, like chopped chicken or grilled vegetables. Serve with sliced avocado and tomatoes or salsa.
Let kids customize plain or vanilla Greek yogurt with an assortment of easy stir-ins, like fresh berries, granola, whole-grain cereal and/or dried fruit. Round it out with a side of raw or lightly steamed vegetables.
We're pretty sure kids won't complain about a snack lunch. Pack hummus along with a couple dippers, like tortilla or pita triangles and veggie sticks, some fresh fruit and cubed cheese for a Mediterranean-inspired lunch. Customize by adding olives, sliced deli turkey or dried fruit.
Pasta salads are a good way to use up whatever vegetables are left at the end of the week. Add protein with canned beans, leftover chicken, deli turkey or tuna. To make a simple creamy dressing, combine plain Greek yogurt with ranch dressing to taste. Toss in cubed cheese or serve it on the side.
Making the five lunch ideas above? This shopping list will help guide you at the supermarket. Use the column that corresponds with the number of lunches that you make each day.
Prep these foods ahead on the weekend, to save time during the weekday rush:
1. Cut bell peppers into strips.
2. Slice cucumber into rounds.
3. Rinse grapes and pat dry. Refrigerate in an open container lined with a paper towel.
4. Slice or cube cheese.
5. Make quesadilla(s) for Tuesday. Let cool.
Store your prepped ingredients in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
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