Ideas for a healthy lunch box

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 24, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
ith school starting up, parents’ thoughts are turning to that daily duty: preparing lunch boxes.
Try not to think of it as a chore, however. Think of it as yet another way — and a very important one — you can nurture your children and have some control over their health. Cafeteria lunches may be improving, but you can still probably pack a healthier lunch than the one your children get at school.
When my husband was a lad, the contents of his brown paper sack lunch never varied: peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Fritos and an apple. He didn’t have a problem with it, since he’s always been a creature of routine, but most kids will want a little more variety than that.
As you prepare lunches, try getting your children involved, or at least let them have a say. You can pack the most beautiful, nutritious lunch in the world, but if your child tosses it or trades it, you’ve wasted your time. Kids are more likely to eat a packed lunch if they’re somewhat invested in its creation.
Give your child choices among healthy options: would you like whole grain bread, tortilla or pita?
Hummus or tuna fish?
Carrot sticks or apple slices?
Nut butter sandwiches remain a great choice for lunch. You can take the traditional PBJ on white, however, and make a healthier version. Use whole grain bread and natural nut butters (introduce your children to almond butter, if you haven’t already).
Regular peanut butter isn’t exactly bad for you, but it typically contains a small amount of partially hydrogenated oil, not to mention sugar. Sugar seems to be added in everything these days, even in things like peanut butter that don’t need it.
Instead of regular jelly, choose an all-fruit spread with no added sugar. Also, consider pairing PB with bananas, perhaps with a small drizzle of honey.
Make a boring sandwich interesting for your picky eater by using cookie cutters to turn a piece of bread into a work of art. Take two slices of bread, one white wheat and one whole wheat, about the same size.
Pick a cool cookie cutter and cut out the center of each piece of bread with the cookie cutter. Swap the center cutouts and assemble the sandwich.
Here’s a recipe that takes a different approach to the standard PB&J.
Peanut Butter Berry-Wich
2 slices whole-wheat bread or banana bread
1 Tbs. natural peanut butter
1 Tbs. softened Neufchâtel (reduced-fat) cream cheese
2 medium strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 tsp. honey
Lay the bread slices on a work surface. Spread the peanut butter on one slice and the cream cheese on the other.
Arrange strawberry slices in an even single layer on top of the peanut butter. Drizzle the honey on the berries and then place the other slice of bread with the cream cheese on top.
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If the sandwich concept leaves your child cold, why not put the same ingredients on a stick? I’m not sure why, but eating things off a stick is just more fun.
A sandwich kebab is made of the same things that comprise a sandwich: bread (crusty loaves work best for this), cheese, meat, grape tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, olives.
Cut up cubes of bread, cheese, and meat (grilled chicken breast is a healthy choice). Simply slide the cubes onto a skewer, interspersed with the other ingredients. Include a little container of ranch dressing or mustard (the healthier choice) for dipping.
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For kids who want something a little more interesting than a sandwich (even one on a stick), there’s Crunchy Asian Chicken Salad.
Pack the salad in a thermos and include some Bibb or Boston lettuce leaves in the lunch box to use as wrappers. Pack nuts separately for use as a garnish. (Some kids really like to assemble things. Better they assemble this than the components of those pre-packaged, highly processed lunch meat, cheese and cracker concoctions.)
Crunchy Asian Chicken Salad
— by Tracey Seaman and Tanya Wenman Steel, “Real Food for Healthy Kids”
Serves three (one-cup servings)
1 1/2 C. finely diced cooked chicken meat (6 ounces, about 1 1/2 breast halves)
6 canned peeled water chestnuts, rinsed and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
1 small celery rib, finely diced
1/2 C. diced apple, such as Gala or Golden Delicious (about 1/2 apple)
1 Tbs. natural peanut butter or sesame tahini
1 Tbs. seasoned rice vinegar
3/4 tablespoon soy sauce
2 Tbs. mayonnaise (could omit)
1 Tbs. minced fresh chives (optional)
1/4 C. roasted soy nuts or coarsely chopped unsalted
Combine the chicken, water chestnuts, carrot, celery and apple in a bowl and stir to mix.
Whisk together the peanut butter, vinegar and soy sauce until smooth. Whisk in the mayonnaise and chives, if using. Spoon the dressing over the salad, and mix well. Sprinkle with soy nuts just before serving.
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Kids love wraps, and the addition of avocado takes this wrap beyond its everyday cousins.
Southwestern Turkey Wraps
Serves 4.
6 ounces thinly sliced reduced-sodium turkey breast
1/2 C. pre-shredded reduced-fat Mexican blend or Cheddar cheese
1/4 C. salsa
1/2 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into thin slices
4 8-inch whole-wheat flour tortillas
Arrange the turkey, cheese, salsa and avocado on the center of each tortilla.
Roll up tightly; cut in half. Cover with plastic wrap to keep the avocado from turning brown.
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Children like to end their lunch with something sweet, and many parents buy fruit roll-ups as an alternative to cookies or candy.
It isn’t hard as you’d imagine to make your own fruit roll-ups at home. They might not be quite as uniform and pretty as the commercial versions, but they taste great — and you can feel good knowing that you haven’t added extra sugar.
Fruit roll-ups
Yield: 12 roll-ups
8 ounces dried apricots or other dried fruit (I used a combination of apricots, cherries and plums)
11/2 C. water
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a 12-inch by 15-inch baking sheet with aluminum foil; coat foil with non-stick cooking spray.
Combine dried fruit with water in a heavy saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes or until fruit is very soft.
Drain excess liquid and pour fruit into a food processor. Puree until very smooth.
Pour fruit onto prepared foil and spread evenly, making sure there are no holes.
Place sheet into oven for 25 minutes. Without opening oven, turn heat off and leave oven door shut for 8 hours. (I accidentally left mine in about 10 minutes longer, with no ill effects).
Remove baking sheet from oven and gently peel fruit from foil. Set on waxed paper, smooth side down, and press down.
Using kitchen shears, cut into 12 even strips, lengthwise. Roll each strip with the paperside out and store in plastic bags until ready to eat.
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These homemade granola bars are delicious and very easy to make. Your busy teen can grab one and run out the door with it for an easy, portable breakfast. It also works as a lunch box treat that’s healthier than cookies or candy.
Granola Bars
— adapted from
Makes 16 bars, about 170 calories each
1 C. quick cooking or old-fashioned oats
1 C. shredded wheat cereal
1 C. nuts (I used a combination of peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts and pistachios)
1 1/2 C. dried fruit (I used apricots, plums, cherries and raisins)
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
1/3 C. honey
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 C. mini chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil or coat an 8-inch by 8-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
Place the oats, cereal, walnuts, dried fruit, cinnamon and salt in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is finely chopped (you will still be able to pieces of dried fruit and nuts).
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, honey, and vanilla. Add the oatmeal mixture and chocolate chips and stir to combine. Transfer to the baking pan and flatten down gently with the back of a spoon or spatula to spread evenly.
Bake until the edges turn golden brown and the bars are done, about 18-20 minutes. Let bars cool completely in pan before slicing and serving.
If you don’t want to eat these right away, pop them into plastic baggies and put them in the freezer.