Healthy Lunch Box Ideas

By Larissa Phillips

Until school food is reformed, my children take their lunch to school. But I'm as busy as any other mom, and just as vulnerable to all those short cuts calling to me at the supermarket. Unfortunately, most foods that are marketed for the lunch box are highly processed - at best, containing sugar, and, at worst, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and a host of preservatives and other unpronounceables.

Here are some ideas for improving the contents of your child's lunch box:

  • Stick to a formula, such as (1) a main dish, (2) a vegetable and (3) something sweet. With this threesome in mind, organizing lunch is a snap.

  • Keep stock of your reserves. Set aside one area of your fridge and one area of your cupboard for lunch-box items (and make them off-limits to kids during non-school hours!).

  • Make a list. Sit down with your kids and write out the items they consider lunch-box worthy. Keep it updated, as their likes and dislikes evolve.

  • Pack lunch-size leftovers ahead of time. Got leftover pineapple chunks, pesto pasta or a few mini-meatballs? Pack them up right away in little lunch containers and drop them into the lunch area in your fridge.

  • Double up. You know you have to pack something like 180 lunches over the next 10 months. Make it easier on yourself by doubling favorite recipes, such as healthy cookies or macaroni and cheese, and packing them up right away into lunch-box-size containers.

  • Try new things. Some kids want the same lunch day after day, year after year. To keep them from falling into a nutritional rut, try introducing a new element once in a while. (Hint: Put peer pressure to your advantage, and make introductions while friends are over.)

Consider some of these standard and not-so-standard possibilities for your lunch-box threesome:

1. Main Dish

  • Sandwich - This one's a no-brainer, but try pushing the envelope, serving turkey sandwiches with lettuce or paper-thin slices of cucumber; pita instead of sliced bread; almond butter instead of peanut butter; or bananas or honey instead of jelly.
  • Pinwheels - Make a sandwich using flatbread. Roll it up tightly, then cut into 1-inch slices. Use a toothpick to secure them.
  • Leftovers - Pasta, mac 'n' cheese, or chicken on a skewer.
  • Bagel - Use a whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese, tomato and cucumber.
  • French toast strips - With maple syrup on the side for dipping (yum!).
  • Brown rice rolls (with soy sauce for dipping)
  • Mozzarella or cheddar cheese cubes and cherry tomatoes on a skewer.

    2. Vegetable/Savory
  • Carrot coins, celery and snap peas
  • Corn-on-the-cob, cut into two-inch widths
  • Salad (with dressing on the side, to be added at lunchtime)
  • Crackers with peanut butter or cheese
  • Vegetables with dip, such as hummus or ranch dressing
  • Snack mix with nuts, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

2. Sweet

  • Smoothies (in a thermos)
  • Plain yogurt with maple syrup
  • Apple slices, with lemon squeezed on top.
  • Frozen blueberries (they thaw by lunchtime)
  • Dried apples, mangos, peaches or nectarines
  • Kiwi fruit (cut off the top and provide a little spoon)
  • Grapes, cantaloupe and watermelon, skewered on a toothpick
  • Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Cinnamon-sugar pecans (dust the nuts with a sprinkle of cinnamon and brown sugar)

Larissa Phillips is a food writer for