It’s September, and that means it’s time to get real about what you’re going to be putting in your child’s lunchbox.
Back-to-school time can be both exciting and anxiety-producing for kids as they anticipate new teachers, new classmates and new routines. And it can be the same for parents, with the excitement of shifting from summer’s patchwork of camps and vacation trips (with all their pros and cons) to the more settled routines of fall – and the anxiety of having to get absolutely everything ready in advance, from bus schedules and carpools to classroom supplies, fall clothes and sports gear.
One of the most anxiety-producing (and ongoing) back-to-school challenges for me when I had young kids and for all my friends and clients with school-age children is what I call the tyranny of the lunchbox.
Every day, rain or shine, five days a week, you’re faced with providing some kind of lunchtime meal for your kid – and if you’re reading this, chances are you care very much about making that lunch as nutritious as possible. Lunch is in fact crucial to your child’s ability to focus and learn during the second half of the school day – but knowing these high stakes doesn’t really help bring down anxiety.
Neither do the multitude of blog posts and articles laying out the “perfect” lunch for your child, from precise food group serving sizes to time-consuming tips like the suggestion that you cut your kid’s sandwiches in the shape of hearts with little raisin eyes. Let’s get real: in the morning, most of us have a hard enough time just getting our kids fed, dressed and out the door with all relevant homework assignments in tow. We don’t have many extra seconds to spare for sandwich origami; and those articles that suggest laying everything out the night before (while this is an admirable strategy) aren’t necessarily taking into account just how exhausted most of us are with our overloaded work and childrearing schedules by the time we put the kids to bed.
So here are my lunchbox guidelines – not “rules,” because the last thing you need to stress about is more “do’s” and “don’ts” in life – but simple guidelines you can remember and try to incorporate every day.
You don’t have to be (and probably won’t be) perfect – and even if you packed the “perfect” lunch, chances are you might open your kid’s lunchbox at the end of the day to find half of it lying there uneaten. But these guidelines will help you do the most you can to give your child what he or she needs to have enough energy, clarity and concentration to rock the second half of the school day.
1. PACK IN THE HEALTHY FATS AND PROTEIN
2. PACK IN THE WHOLE GRAINS
3. PACK IN A FEW VEGGIES AND FRUITS
Here are some tips for making this work:
1. PACK IN THE HEALTHY FATS AND PROTEIN:
Believe it or not, 60% of our brains are made of fat, and to reach and maintain peak performance and communication between brain cells, you need to replenish certain fats (particularly omega-3s) through your diet.
Protein is another key brain food: the neurotransmitters that send signals between brain cells are made of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and these also need to be replenished through the diet for peak performance.
The good news is that the best proteins tend to be naturally combined with the best fats: nuts and seeds, for instance, are jam-packed with both, and also contain other great nutrients like vitamin E, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. There are hundreds of prepackaged nut and seed mixes out there, or feel free to toss some together yourself (add raisins, dried cranberries and even chocolate chips for flavor if that will help ensure it gets eaten). Aim for variety throughout the week, as each nut and seed has its own unique benefits. For those with nut allergies, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are great nutrient-dense choices.
You can also choose nut butters (almond or peanut butter) as sandwich spreads, or for those with nut allergies, Sunbutter (made from sunflower seeds, which are terrific sources of vitamin E, B vitamins and selenium) or tahini (made from sesame seeds, which are surprisingly great sources of calcium and other minerals). Use tahini just like you would peanut butter on a sandwich, combined with your child’s favorite jelly or jam.
Other excellent lunchbox choices that combine protein with fats and nutrients include cheese, milk and yogurt (organic and grass-fed when you can). If your child has a dairy allergy, there are many terrific almond, soy and coconut-based substitutes out there, including soy-based yogurt from Stonyfield Farm, almond-based yogurt from Silk and Almond Dream, and coconut-based yogurt from SO Delicious. Dairy-free cheeses like Daiya and Follow Your Heart are relatively easy to find, though these are often best served in sandwiches and salads rather than as solo slices on the side (as their textures don’t quite match that of dairy-based cheese).
You can also get creative with your proteins and fats, in ways that don’t have to take much time: we’re all concerned about mercury in tuna fish these days, so mix it up by trying a salmon-fish sandwich instead (1 can of salmon, preferably Wild Alaskan, drained; a few tablespoons of vegan mayo; and some chopped onions, celery or scallions for texture), or my chickpea-based mock-tuna sandwich (I promise it’s easy to make, and you absolutely do not have to cut the bread into a heart or smiley-face!).
Remember that lunch doesn’t always have to include a sandwich: don’t be afraid, for instance, to think “out of the box” by incorporating leftovers from last night’s dinner. Spaghetti and meatballs was always a big hit with my sons, and so was pasta and pesto with chicken; there are plenty of gluten-free options for both meals. The same goes for mac and cheese (see my gluten-free, dairy-free recipe if your child has allergy issues), turkey and stuffing (see my gluten-free gravy and stuffing recipes for those with allergies), chicken, steak or even hotdogs. (In fact, the only leftover I’d avoid is non-canned fish, as even with an insulated lunchbox, fish can spoil quickly.)
And though many of us are concerned about nitrates in deli meats, there are some excellent nitrate and nitrite-free options (including anything from Applegate farms, and Boar’s Head’s “Simplicity All Natural” meats). If your child has a gluten allergy or intolerance, or a dairy allergy, be sure to look for “gluten-free” and “dairy-free” labels on your deli meats, as some contain gluten and dairy products as fillers (Applegate and Boar’s Head products are free of these). You can pair these deli meats with gluten-free breads and wraps (see my section on “whole grains” below); and you can also try a lettuce wrap, using two romaine leaves (or collard green leaves, which hold together very well) in place of bread. Use healthy sandwich spreads rich in omega-3s like Veganaise; or try mashing an avocado and using that as spread.
And don’t forget beans: it’s hard to imagine any kid eating a straight-up half-cup serving of black beans or chickpeas, but there are super-easy ways to make beans a treat, like prepackaged hummus or black bean spread, and lentil or black bean soup. Taco salad is another great (and very easy) way to work in beans: put a layer of shredded lettuce, a layer of taco chips and a layer of beans in a container or mason jar, alongside a separate container of salsa or any favorite dressing (Catalina, Ranch or Russian all work well), and let your child add the dressing and shake it up at lunchtime.
Edamame (soybeans) is one final great lunchtime protein that contains healthy fats along with other key nutrients like iron and vitamins A and C.
2. PACK IN THE GRAINS:
Whole grains are rich in B vitamins, amino acids and antioxidants, all of which boost brain function. And they’re also a key source of fiber, which helps to regulate blood sugar and keeps your child’s body and brain going at an even keel all day (no sudden crashes), helping with mental calm and focus.
Grains have gotten a bad rap lately because many (though not all) contain gluten, a mixture of two proteins found in the starch of certain grass-based grains that’s problematic for people with gluten intolerances or celiac disease. If your child does have issues with gluten, don’t sweat it, there are still plenty of gluten-free whole grains you can easily work into his or her diet (I’ll give you a quick primer on this below).
Whole wheat, buckwheat, oats, barley, brown rice and quinoa are some of my favorite grains: many prepared breads, wraps and crackers contain these grains (just be sure that “100% Whole Grain” is the first ingredient – this will keep you from falling into the food industry trap of items labeled as “containing whole grains” that are in fact loaded with sugar, corn syrup and artificial colors you definitely don’t want if your goal is mental clarity). Pastas are also a good lunchbox bet: add any favorite topping.
If your child has gluten issues, there are many delicious gluten-free-labeled products out there (just be sure to look for the gluten-free or GF label, because “gluten” doesn’t have to appear on the ingredients list of packaged foods). Quinoa and brown rice are naturally gluten-free. Gluten-free rice or flaxseed crackers are great picks, and there are many healthy packaged whole grain breads you won’t notice are gluten-free: Udi is my favorite brand (its main grain is brown rice), though Food For Life (which also makes GF tortillas and English muffins) and Schar (which makes the best gluten, dairy and egg-free bread) are other favorites. (If you’re still feeling overwhelmed about looking for gluten-free foods for your child, please see my blog on how to shop with a gluten allergy or gluten intolerance.)
Quinoa tabouli salad is a tasty gluten-free choice that can double as both a dinner side and a lunchbox staple. And be sure to try a brown rice stir-fry at least once, adding the veggies and proteins of your choice – it travels well in the lunchbox, and offers countless health benefits (particularly if you cook with a healthy oil).
3. PACK IN A FEW VEGGIES AND FRUITS:
This is the lunchbox compartment that stresses some parents out the most – but it doesn’t have to. Vegetables and fruits are a crucial piece of brain and body health for your child: they’re naturally packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that do all kinds of crazy-great things scientists are only just starting to understand, like flavonoids which increase blood flow to the brain. But figuring out which veggies and fruits to put in your child’s lunchbox (ones they might actually eat) doesn’t have to be a stress-fest.
Keep it simple. If you happen to be blessed with a child who will go for classics, more power to you: baby carrots or carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, green beans, celery sticks, and cucumber slices or cucumber sticks are great choices. (If your kid happens to love peas or lima beans, there’s no rule against serving them up cold in the lunchbox; the same goes for steamed broccoli or cauliflower.) If a creamy salad dressing (preferably organic), hummus spread or guacamole will inspire the non-veggie-lover to chow down, add a generous serving as a side dip. Baked or oven-fried white or sweet potatoes (with a dipping sauce if needed) and avocado are other quick and easy options. Avocado is the brain food of champions with its high omega-3 count; though if you’re slicing it up for the lunchbox, be sure to spritz with lemon juice to keep it from browning.
Vegetable-based soups are relatively easy to make, and a great way to sneak in leafy greens: this will depend on your child’s taste buds, but you can experiment with a simple creamy spinach or carrot soup, and if you happen to have success, go from there (see my recipes for more quick veggie soups).
Fruits are an easier sell for most kids: cantaloupe, pineapple, apples (if you’re slicing them first, spritz with lemon juice), strawberries and blueberries (look for organic versions of these whenever possible, as they top the Environmental Working Group’s list of high-pesticide-residue foods), grapes, tangerines, mango – start out with what you know your kid will eat, experiment with different options and follow his or her lead.
Finally, don’t stress the lunchbox! Do what you can, and let the rest sort itself out. Kids are very good at setting up battlegrounds over the things we parents make a big deal of – so just do your part, try to adjust as you can to what your kid does and doesn’t like, and let the rest go. Somehow children usually do seem to get what they need to learn and grow – and let’s face it, they’re smarter and faster than we are anyway!