Healthy Lunch Ideas: How to Build a Better Box
By Jennifer Tyler Lee
Photo by Marla Meridith
Back-to-school season is in full swing, and with that comes (the much dreaded) lunch packing duty. If you’re like me, packing a healthy lunch that your kids will actually eat is one of the most challenging tasks you face each week.
First, there’s the utter frustration of boxes coming home completely untouched. On those days, which used to happen far too often in our house, I found myself grumbling, “Why did I bother to pack it if you’re not going to eat it?”
And then there’s the irony of what I call the “Packaged Food Polka.” Sauntering over to the pantry, I would grab a box of granola bars, neatly packed six in a box. Removing the bars from the package, I nestled them in another package to be transported to school. The result of this seemingly harmless little dance was a mountain of waste heavier than a kindergartener. The average elementary school student generates 67 pounds of waste each year from lunch boxes alone.
I was fed up (and fresh out of ideas). So, together with my kids, we came up with a simple strategy to build a better lunch box. For a system of any kind to be successful in our house it has to be (a) sustainable (one that I can maintain on a busy schedule) and (b) easy (one that my kids can be a part of).
The system had to work in all weather conditions—even on frazzled mornings when we were rushing out the door with barely a minute to spare—otherwise it would lose its appeal. With those guiding principles, we came up with a few simple lunch packing agreements.
1) Eat Your Colors
The kids decided that the same principles we use playing Crunch a Color® to build balanced, healthy dinners could be used to build a healthy lunch box. The Crunch a Color formula became our mantra for lunch as much as dinner: three colors + one protein + one healthy grain. It’s easy to remember and, with a little bit of practice, easy to achieve when building your box. The bounty of end-of-summer fruit at the farmers market will make it simple for you to get started: juicy red strawberries, sweet peas in nature’s perfect package and cheery pops of yellow cherry tomatoes. Red. Green. Yellow. Play with colors to make your box fun.
2) Think Outside the Box
School lunches can be the worst offenders when it comes to processed and over-packaged foods. Inspired by a project in my son’s kindergarten class where the kids investigated the impact of the trash we create on our oceans, my 6-year-old son, James, decided to make our boxes 100% plastic baggie free. It was one easy way he felt that we could make a tangible difference.
This simple change led my kids to choose fresh, whole foods over anything that arrived in a box, bag, cup or carton. We took it one step further by remaking some of our boxed favorites in a healthy way, like homemade granola bars and no-bake energy bites made with rolled oats, sunflower butter and honey. The focus on this one simple idea helped us easily make the shift to boxes loaded with whole foods.
3) Cook Together
“If they cook it, they will eat it!” That’s true for meals made at home, and the theory holds for the lunch box too. For my kids, I learned that one of the keys to getting them to eat their lunches was to get them involved in making those lunches. I know what you’re thinking: “It takes too much time to cook with my kids!” or “I barely have enough time to get myself ready on busy mornings.” I know those arguments well because I used to make them. But with a bit of investment up front, you’ll save time in the end.
Together as a family, we created a meal plan each week. This strategy has two benefits: First, giving the kids responsibility for their choices helps you avoid nagging complaints like, “Why did you pack [insert offending food here] in my lunch? It gets mushy and I don’t like it!” If they put it on the menu, and discover that they don’t like it, they’ll take responsibility for not packing it again and stop pointing the finger at you. Second, you start the week with a plan in place so you don’t end up spending a hazy 20 minutes staring into the fridge wondering what to pack (again).
Beyond planning, inviting kids to prepare their lunches makes an even bigger impact. On Sunday afternoon, set aside 20 minutes to wash, peel and chop your fresh fruits and veggies for the week. Ready to take it a step further? Cook your Sunday dinner together and make enough for leftovers that can make another appearance as lunch in the week ahead.
Our lunches are certainly not perfect—we still have tough days! But these few simple strategies made a big change in our boxes. Like anything when it comes to raising kids, it’s a work in progress.
Jennifer Tyler Lee is the creator of the award-winning nutrition game Crunch a Color® and author of the forthcoming book The 52 New Foods Challenge (Penguin/Avery, 2014). Like most parents, she struggled to get her kids to eat healthy, balanced meals, so she decided to make it into a healthy eating game and she’s giving back to support nonprofit kids’ nutrition programs. Her games have been featured by Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Rachael Ray’s Yum-O!, Pottery Barn Kids, Laurie David’s Family Dinner, Kiwi Magazine, Dr. Greene and Yum Food & Fun For Kids, among many others, as a simple, fun and playful way to get kids to eat healthy and try new foods. Crunch a Color is available at select Whole Foods Markets and online at Amazon. Jennifer’s weekly new food adventures and easy recipes can be found at www.crunchacolor.com.