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Anatomy of the School Lunch: Keeping Lunchtime Nourishing & Fun!

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It’s that time of year again, and I KNOW how excited you parents are about packing lunches again (ahem…sarcasm)! We got you! School Food (snacks and lunches) don’t have to be a stressful battle between you and your kids. Here are some easy ideas and strategies to follow- go through the lists with your kids too and make it a collaborative process. 

My NUMBER ONE tip for school lunches is at the end of this blog, stay tuned….

Include one food from each group to start.

A reminder, there are now THREE food groups: 

  • Vegetables & fruit
  • Protein foods (dairy products are now considered among protein foods)
  • Grains and grain foods. 

This creates the base for a balanced lunch. Serving sizes for kids vary with age but are generally about ¼- ½ cup servings per food is a great place to start. Yes some kids will eat MUCH more than this, and others less, they are all different!  It is a GOOD idea to double up on grains and grain-foods…children are turning over glucose in their brains at a rate of 6x that of any adult!! They are moving, growing, learning AND developing at the same time and need quick fast carbs throughout the day to stay happy and energized. You have a good idea of what your child has been eating through the summer- use that to guide your serving sizes. 

Check below for suggestions for each group.

This is particularly important for younger children that may still be struggling with using cutlery efficiently; remember they have about 6 minutes to eat!!!  Lunchtime doesn’t provide much actual time for EATING, especially when you add in all of “herding cats” and the distractions around them. Finger foods are easy to handle and eat, and will ensure that more food actually makes it to their mouths. A Bento-style lunch, in the Japanese tradition provides a TON of inspiration, and there are countless IG accounts that feature only kids lunches. Cut food into sticks, strips, cubes, or anything else bite-size to make things as worry-free as possible.

Ask your child to help in planning lunches that have different colours and shapes going on- they can brainstorm different foods. Try to add in a new food colour weekly if you can (yes, you will max out at about 7 colours!). Another fun thing to do ahead of time is use cookie cutters to punch and create fun shapes out of sandwiches, fruit and veggies, etc. Fun food is more likely to be eaten at school.

While finger foods are great, you don’t need to leave out leftovers and meals that require utensils entirely. Just be sure that they have everything they need to access and enjoy the food. Test your child with their entire lunch kit at home before school begins. This is CRUCIAL. If they can’t open their containers, they can’t eat it, and sadly there are not always adults there to help all the kids. 

Does it need to be heated and can it be done easily? Do they have the utensils they’re comfortable with? Making the process effortless is MORE important than creating a perfect lunch!! Make it as easy as possible.

Read these with the family and talk about what combinations you could make for a complete lunch. Then head to the next section on snacks!

Protein foods

  • ½ cup of beans, lentils, dahl, chickpea stew, etc
  • 2 tbsp nut or seed butter
  • 1 hard boiled egg
  • ½ cup shredded chicken or meat
  • 1 mini meat or beans and veggie patty
  • ½ cup tuna salad
  • ½ cup plain yogurt (sweeten with berries or honey)
  • ½ cup cheese cubes
  • 2 tbsp hummus

Vegetables

  • Carrot, celery or cucumber sticks
  • Cherry tomatoes or grape tomatoes for older kids
  • Roasted sweet potato or parsnips
  • Radishes!
  • Sugar-snap peas and snow peas
  • Edamame in ALL forms
  • Mushrooms
  • Zucchini-raw works better
  • Broccoli or cauliflower florets
  • Skewers (toothpicks) of mixed peppers, tomatoes, and cucumber
  • Baked broccoli and cheese cups

Fruits

  • ½ cup berries-any kind
  • 1 sliced apple, orange, banana, pear
  • 1 peach, plum, or nectarine
  • ½ cup cubed melon
  • ½ cup grapes

Grains

  • 1 slice of whole wheat, rye, spelt or gluten-free bread
  • Pita strips to dip in hummus
  • ½ cup couscous
  • ½ cup quinoa or barley salad 
  • ½ cup brown rice or rice and beans
  • 1 small tortilla, rolled with cream cheese and fruit
  • ½ cup rolled oats with yogurt and berries
  • 8 whole grain crackers-all the crackers!

Of course, snacks will be a part of the lunchbox too, but you can find compromises with some of that ultra-processed stuff that has been advertised to your kids. Finding a balance between packaged snacks and homemade ones can be key- there are some good options for convenience snacks out there, but whole food and homemade is generally healthier and is a lot less expensive if you prepare it yourself. Super-organized folks may doing baking in advance of school weeks. (I have to tell you, I personally, am NOT that organized! If baking happens a few times a year, I feel like a rock-star. 🙂 )

Finally, remember every grade school child needs a Full Lunch and 2 snacks: 

Here are some of my favourite snack picks

(Note- you may not be able to use the nuts for school, but they’re great once they get home, in between extracurriculars, or on the weekend!):

Snacks to keep kids on track:

  • Cashews– I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like cashews yet, especially kids. Cashews are rich in copper, a trace mineral that you don’t think about much, but is very important for helping our bodies use iron and zinc properly. The are also super high in magnesium, which lots of Canadians are deficient in.
  •  Sugar-snap peas: I’m such a huge fan of these little green parcels of perfection! They are super sweet, very crunchy and great all on their own. The naturally-occurring sugars give them sweetness that kids who have been living off of freezies in the summer have grown accustomed to, BUT they also have about 3 grams of protein AND fibre in every cup! They are packed full of water which is hydrating, and amazingly contain 13 mg of omega-3 fats and your total vitamin C for the day in one cup.
  •  Popcorn is the solution to a lot of things when it comes to kids and snacks. Firstly it’s fun to eat, and it contains fibre, but also CARBS; kids need a LOT of carbs in the summer months because they are active and outside running around more. You can find some great products now made with olive or avocado oil, and lower amounts of salt, if you don’t want pop-it-and-pack, you can certainly rely on some plain, pre-popped popcorn with a bit of sea salt.

High-protein snacks: (Great for a very active child!)

  • Fava beans or lupini beans are a new player in the dried snack market, and they are packed with protein, about 36 grams in 6 tbsp! They are also high in magnesium, and what all Canadians need more of, fibre! A hefty 19 grams of fibre in that portion. They come salted or plain or flavoured, stick with plain the first time you try them..and watch-out they are addictive!
  •  Pumpkin seeds– these little green marvels pack about 19 grams of protein in a cup, along with a ton of other nutrients, they can be roasted for extra flavour or eaten raw. My favourite part of these is not the protein, but the zinc! Who knew you could get 8 mg of zinc in your high-protein snack? They’re also school-safe.
  • Chickpeas- (also called channa) are very commonly eaten in Asia, but are becoming so popular here! You can buy them roasted and salted; they are packed with a whopping 15 grams of protein in a cup! They contain fantastic fibre, the kind great for our gut, and are super-safe and hearty, so can be really taken anywhere for the long-haul! Keep them tightly sealed so they don’t lose their crunch!

Portable No Mess Snacks: (Perfect for on the go families!)

  •  Almonds– Almonds are perfect raw or if you like a bit of a roasted flavour, roasted. They are full of protein, antioxidants, fibre and packed with so much heart-healthy fat. Interestingly, they are also a source of calcium, which many people are not getting enough a cup can give you 25% of what you need!
  • Cucumbers- yup picture yourself diving into a full-English style cucumber, or mini-farm cucumbers from the market (no packaged please!). I think a lot of people rely on baby carrots, and they are totally overrated! We need more green in our life, and cucumbers are a portable no mess answer. They’re packed with water, which fills you up and hydrates you, as well as a source of vitamin K which we are lacking.
  •  Shreddies- This classic cereal is super-portable and packs a ton of nutrition, from protein to fibre, B vitamins and are very moderate in sugar and salt! They can be taken anywhere, and you just pop them in your mouth for a high-nutrition no mess boost.

My FINAL and most-important point about school lunches:

Lower Your Expectations as a Parent. They may not eat any or most of it for several weeks maybe even months. And they will be okay, just stay consistent and ride out this adjustment. 

If you have concerns about your child’s eating patterns, please contact Vibrant Nutrition, we can help!!!!

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