What's in the Lunch Box?

Tasty, nutritious lunch ideas for your schoolchild.

Sending your children off to school with lunch from home can increase the odds that they will actually eat a nourishing lunch. Lunch box dining requires a small investment in time and equipment, but once you have your system in place, filling lunch boxes with nutritious, tasty food takes very little time.

If you haven't already, purchase a lunch box, a hot-cold thermos, small resealable plastic containers, reusable silverware, and an ice pack. (VERY IMPORTANT: Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.)

Keep in mind that with today's shortened lunch periods, children may have little time to eat. Make lunches easy to eat by cutting fruit into small pieces and threading on skewers. Finger foods like baby carrots, pre-cut veggies, small crackers, and hand-held sandwiches are easy to eat. Fruits and veggies often go down easier when accompanied with a dip.

Ask your children what they want for lunch. Listen to — and respect — their responses. Don't worry if they want peanut butter and jelly (or cheese and crackers or...) for three weeks running. You can round out the meals with a variety of other nourishing foods.

Make your first shopping trip a joint effort. Bring your children with you to the store and have them help select foods. Once at home, continue to seek your children's help in preparing their lunches. Young kids can spread fillings on sandwiches or combine dip ingredients. Encourage older children to make their own lunches.

A final tip: Ask children to bring home what they don't eat; this lets you know what they're not eating, allowing you to plan future meals.

The following suggestions are divided into three preparation categories: Quick & Easy, Light Assembly, and Make Ahead — for when you have time to cook. Include a portion of what you make in the next day's lunches, and freeze the rest for later use. (Freeze in lunchbox-size portions and these become Quick and Easy the next time you use them.) Though they require a bit of time and effort, Make Ahead foods go the furthest to provide good nutrition and great taste. Mix-and-match foods from the following lists to put together a tasty lunch that satisfies your children's preferences.

Quick & Easy

nuts, trail mix, granola, dried fruit, roasted soybean nuts, sunflower or pumpkin seeds

baby carrots, small bananas, pineapple chunks, fresh berries, grapes, cherry tomatoes

whole grain rolls, raisin bread, breadsticks, bagels, pita bread, tortillas, taco shells, whole wheat English muffins

jams and jellies, nut butters, mild salsa, salad dressings

string cheese, cheese slices or cubes (dairy or non), soy-style luncheon meats, soy-style bacon or hot dogs, yogurt (dairy and non), soy or rice milk, cottage cheese, cream cheese (Neufchatel), lean roast beef, sliced turkey, or chicken

rice cakes, pretzels, whole grain crackers, popcorn, veggie chips, granola bars, graham crackers, bagel crisps, instant soup, rice, or potato "cup" (add hot water and pour into thermos), natural fruit leather, fruit juice (make sure label reads "100% fruit juice"), applesauce, naturally sweetened breakfast cereal, fruit-sweetened cookies, instant refried beans, instant hot cereal

Light Assembly

(Many of the following become "Quick & Easy" when they're purchased ready-to-go at the Wedge.)

fruit salad, melon cubes, broccoli or cauliflower florets, bell pepper rings, jicama sticks, zucchini or cucumber slices, orange segments, peach, nectarine, or plum slices, tossed green salads, marinated vegetable salads, chef salad

creamy veggie dips, tofu "egg" salad, tuna or chicken salad made with soy mayonnaise, cream cheese with diced veggies, bean spreads, sweet fruit dips

macaroni and cheese, instant soy or rice pudding, canned chili, canned soup, canned pasta dishes, ravioli or tortellini, pasta sauces, baked tofu nuggets, veggie burgers, baked pita or tortilla chips, cooked multi-grain cereal

pasta, whole grain cereal

Make Ahead (and worth it...)

(Like Light Assembly, many of these become "Quick & Easy" when purchased premade.)

chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, beef barley soup, vegetable stew, tempeh chili, grain "hotdishes", meatless spaghetti, vegetable lasagna, cheese and veggie pizzas, potato or zucchini pancakes, "sloppy joe" mix made with TVP, tofu or tempeh stir-fry with brown rice and almonds, black (or red) beans and rice

pasta salads, tabouli or other grain salads, potato salad, 3 bean salad, cole slaw

whole grain breads, whole grain muffins, banana, pumpkin or zucchini bread made with whole wheat flour, cornbread muffins made with whole grain flour

oatmeal applesauce cookies, carrot cake made with whole wheat flour and honey, rice pudding made with brown rice and maple syrup, bread pudding made with whole grain bread and maple syrup, baked apple, fruit crisp or cobbler

pizza, casseroles, pancakes, waffles,... anything that reheats well is a good candidate for the next day's lunch.