Healthy lunches can help set your kids up for a bright future and reduce their lifetime cancer risk.
But assembling a healthy, appealing lunch for your kids can be a challenge. Many traditional lunch box foods aren’t what’s best for your young ones. And they can be picky eaters.
“It’s important to pack nutritious foods in the proper proportions,” says Lindsey Wohlford, a wellness dietitian at MD Anderson.
Research has linked processed meats like salami, bologna, pastrami and even lean lunchmeats to an increased risk for colorectal cancer later in life. Research also shows sugary drinks such as soda, juice and energy or sports drinks can lead to unwanted weight gain that may track through adulthood, leading to increased cancer risk.
Disease risks aside, most conventional snack foods—chips, cookies, crackers, processed snacks—tend to be heavy on sodium and additives, and low in nutrients and high in calories. They aren’t in your youngsters’ best interest.
So, what sorts of things should you pack in your kids’ lunch box?
Follow the two-thirds rule
Two thirds or more of your children’s lunch box should be filled with plant-based foods. This includes vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, grains and seeds. The other third (or less) can be healthy animal-based products like lean, unprocessed meats or low-fat dairy.
Whole apples, bananas and oranges are all healthy and easy-to-pack choices. And so are veggies like carrots, celery and jicama sticks.
While many traditional lunchmeats are processed, Wohlford says rotisserie chicken and rotisserie turkey are healthy options. Lean red meat is also fine, but only in small amounts.
The toughest part of packing a lunch might be the drink. “Almost all fruit or sports drinks contain lots of calories and sugar,” Wohlford says.
Water and low-fat milk are two healthy options. Just remember: Milk counts toward the animal-sourced portion of your child’s plate.
Packing tips to make your job easier
You’re busy. Packing healthy lunch components day-in and day-out may seem challenging. But there are ways to simplify the process.
Use the weekend to plan and shop for the upcoming week’s lunches.
“Pre-planning and even pre-packing those lunches on weekends can make school mornings a lot less hectic,” Wohlford says.
You might buy a large bag of baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, pre-cut celery and several bell peppers. Divide them into individual baggies over the weekend, then you can grab one of each in the morning when you’re filling up the lunch boxes.
“Also, think of healthy items that are pre-packaged that you can grab and toss into lunches,” she says.
Try string cheese, yogurt, tuna and individual servings of nuts, raisins or fruit (packaged in fruit juice instead of syrup). “More and more stores are catering to healthy shoppers on the go, so look for prepackaged fruit with peanut butter, or packs that a include a variety of non-starchy vegetables,” she says.
Wohlford also points out that dinner leftovers make excellent, simple lunches.
“If you’re preparing a healthy meal for dinner, make extra,” she says. “It’s the same amount of work for more meals.”
Getting your kids to eat the healthy stuff
You could spend all day preparing nutritious lunches, but that’s no guarantee your kids will eat them.
Wohlford offers a few tips for improving the odds your children will enjoy the food you pack for them:
- Include healthy dips. Things like carrot sticks and peppers will go down easier with a tasty dip. Wohlford's top choice is hummus. “It’s something a lot of kids like and it’s a healthy source of plant-based protein, which will help them feel full,” she says. Peanut butter or other nut butters make a nice addition to lunch. So does Greek yogurt, but choose one with a low sugar content.
- Let your kids pick what they want. Invite your kids to shop with you and choose the fruits, vegetables, nuts and other healthy items they want. You’ll improve the chances they eat those things when you’re not around.
- Get your kids involved. Ask them to help prepare part of their own lunch, like their sandwich or sliced fruit. They’ll be less likely to throw out or trade away something they spent time making themselves.