Unpacking New Lunch Ideas

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As summertime wanes, the school year beckons. Even if you don’t have kids, the end of summer brings back that back-to-school feeling. It’s time to switch gears for a new season, and changing gears might mean changing a few habits. One of them might be shaking up lunch plans for you and your kids.

It’s easy to get into a comfortable lunch zone, slapping together a sandwich every day. It’s also easy to grab processed foods that kids love, such as pre-packaged all-in-one meals in kid-size portions, a variety of yogurt products, fruit roll-ups and toaster pastries. These prepackaged goods are easy to store in the fridge and pantry. It’s simple for you and your kids to grab them on the go, and they’re easy for kids to handle at lunchtime.

But the prepackaged goods that make life easy don’t always offer good nutrition. Those convenient all-in-one meal packages might contain as much sodium as your child should have in one day. Different brands of yogurt and fruit wraps have different amounts of sugar, ranging from two to six teaspoons in a one-serving package. And the most important part of the meal, protein, is likely chicken, ham, turkey or hot dogs that are labeled as “chopped and formed” or “mechanically separated.” These prepackaged shortcuts are a boon in terms of making a quick lunch, but over time they can be a bane when it comes to your kids’ health.
The challenge, then, is to work whole, unprocessed food into lunches on a routine basis. It can be done, with a minimum of prep and planning. Sandwiches, chips and an apple were the default lunch in my family. My mom made great sandwiches, piling lettuce, sliced tomatoes and leftover roast on bread slathered with mustard and mayo. That’s not a terrible choice nutritionally, using whole grain bread and chips that are low in fat and sodium. But even a great sandwich can get boring, day after day. Let’s look at two sandwich-free options that mix things up in a way that you and your kids can enjoy.

The first option is bento boxes, or the “bistro lunch.” This concept offers a variety of items neatly packed in one container, such as packages of sushi, or the grab-and-go snack boxes. The bento box is a glorified lunchbox with partitions for each item. Bento boxes come in a variety of sizes at a variety of prices, from simple plastic containers to more elaborate stainless steel packages. They’re a great way to present a wider variety of different foods, colors and textures. This variety is perfect for picky eaters, as well as for kids who “don’t like their food to touch.”

If the task of filling up these cute containers intimidates you, make a plan to divide and conquer the work. In less than an hour, you can prep a variety of fruits, veggies, pretzels, nuts, chips, meats, cheese and packaged snacks. Your kids can help by forming an assembly line to pack what they like, with your supervision. You’ll know that your kids have a balanced meal of mostly whole and unprocessed foods, and they can’t complain about what you fixed for lunch if they made their own choices. Using a sturdy bento box to pack lunch means that you’ll save money on disposable items, such as baggies, plastic wrap and foil.
If your kids crave snacks that are sweet, salty or savory, a bento box is a great way to offer a variety while limiting portions. Instead of one boring bag of chips or a snack cake that’s high in saturated fat, you can pack nuts, chips, pretzels, raisins, pumpkin seeds, coconut strips and chocolate chips.

Another way to offer kids a variety of fun food choices that are easy to handle is making food on a stick. Prep time for this option will be much the same as packing a bento box, so you can use the same divide and conquer approach, with your kids helping with the assembly line. There are countless ways to layer lunch meat and cheese, tomatoes and chopped veggies. You can satisfy a sweet tooth with skewers filled with sliced fruit or berries and mini-marshmallows.

The convenience of processed and packaged foods definitely has its place, in moderation. They’re perfect for those crazy days when you’re short on time. But the benefit of making lunches with your kids goes beyond nutrition, portion sizes and food prep. This responsibility will help them hone their people skills, such as problem-solving. If you have two kids but there’s only one orange left, they’ll need to negotiate who gets what, or decide to divide and share. They won’t learn unless you let them. Think of it this way: you’re not only raising children; you’re raising the adults your kids will become. ■

Sources: eatingwell.com and thekitchn.com.