Northwestern Medicine

How to Create a Healthy Packed Lunch

August 15, 2013

Replace traditional favorites with healthier alternatives

LAKE FOREST, IL – Picture a typical packed lunch, and what often comes to mind is a sandwich, potato chips, a piece of fruit and a dessert. But as with many traditional eating habits, there are countless healthier, tastier alternatives to explore, even when packing a lunch for your picky grade school student or teenager.

Here are some steps to create a healthy, satisfying packed lunch that your child will be excited to eat.

1. Pick Your Protein

As with any meal, packing a lunch starts by picking a protein, and it does not have to be in a sandwich. Try leftover chicken or turkey from last night’s dinner if it’s a meat your child likes. Or put lean, low-sodium deli meat in a whole wheat pita or tortilla.

For non-meat ideas, peanut butter is often a staple for kids, but try mixing things up by adding other nut butters like almond or cashew butter. You can also branch out with hard-boiled eggs, cheese cubes or even tofu if your child will eat it.

If you do make a sandwich, stick to whole wheat bread and stay away from white bread and heavy breads like pretzel breads. Another alternative to the sandwich is to build a burrito ‘bowl’ by mixing your choice of rice, corn, black beans, lettuce and cheese and topping it with salsa.

2. Pass on the Potato Chips

Instead of salty and highly processed potato chips, look for crunch in other places—like chopped-up vegetables. Mix it up so that the veggies do not get too predictable; carrots are another staple in many children’s lunches, but other vegetables to try include cucumbers, celery, sugar snap peas or even jicama. A great way to get kids to try new raw vegetables is by giving them a dip like hummus or the individually wrapped salad dressings that are available at most supermarkets.

If your child really wants that salty kick, include pretzels or baked potato chips on occasionor make a simple trail mix with pretzels, nuts and dried fruits. Variety is the goal, so that your child is not eating potato chips every day for lunch.

3. Don’t Forget the Fruit

Fruit is often the easiest part of a packed lunch, because many children eat at least a few different fruits. So focus on variety and include more than one fruit each day if possible; try combinations of berries or mix apples with grapes.

But be sure to skip the fruit juice. Although it may seem like a way to serve your child fruit, fruit juice is heavy in calories and not much healthier than soda pop in terms of the sugar and calorie content.

4. Let Them Eat One Small Cookie

Do not deny your child a dessert if it is something he or she particular wants in a packed lunch. Instead, limit the dessert to one small cookie, or put the cookie with fruit to make a larger dessert.

5. You Are What You Drink

What we drink is just as important as what we eat, and this is also true for our children. Children can take in hundreds of calories through soda pop or fruit juice, filling up their stomachs and leaving them less hungry for healthy food. Forgo the high sugar, sodium, and caffeine content of soda pops, and focus on milk and water instead.

“We encourage parents to view the packed school lunch as the perfect opportunity to control the food provided to their child and to offer them a variety of healthy options,” said Edye Wagner, RD, LDN, CDE, system clinical nutrition manager at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.

“Try sending your child’s favorites two or three days a week and branching out the other days with new fruits, vegetables or an alternative to the sandwich. Be open to ideas from your child as well, if they have tried a new flavor and liked it. No matter what, use the packed lunch to encourage healthy eating by your children.”

Learn more about Northwestern Medicine Nutrition services.

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