Creative School Lunch and After-School Snack Ideas
By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD
Preparing for the annual ritual of back to school is not just another date on the calendar. It's an exciting time for kids and parents. Kids reunite with their friends, meet new teachers, stock backpacks with brand new supplies and, if lucky, get a few new outfits to kick off the new school year.
Parents are focused on reestablishing routines including homework rituals, early to bed, nourishing meals, snacks and the challenge of packing nutritious and delicious lunch boxes.
Conjuring up new and creative lunch and snack ideas that your child will enjoy and is nutritionally balanced is no easy task. Left to the last minute during the morning rush and it becomes even more taxing.
Plan ahead so you have all the ingredients on hand and, if possible, make lunches the night before to make the morning a little less chaotic.
Make sure your kids don't go out the door on an empty stomach. Breakfast really is the most important meal and studies show kids perform better in the classroom and on the playing field when they start the day with breakfast.
Packing School Lunches Your Kids Will Love
Even the best of lunch boxes packed with loving care can get traded away for cookies or chips. To make sure your child eats and enjoy the lunch you packed, start with familiar foods to them. Next, get your child involved in the planning and packing of their meal. When kids are engaged in the process, they are more likely to help pack a meal they will eat.
Include at least three foods groups to provide nourishment and energy boosting nutrients to help get your child through the day:
- Whole grains (look for the word 'whole' on the list of ingredients)
- Lean- or low-fat protein
- Fruits and veggies
- Treat (aim for less than 8-10 grams of sugar per serving)
Popcorn, wraps, bread, rolls, crackers, pitas, cereal, pasta, quinoa, brown rice
Low-fat milk, cheese, nuts, cottage cheese, yogurt, hummus, turkey, chicken, roast beef, ham, nut butters, eggs, edamame, beans, tuna fish and salmon.
100% fruit juice box, any fresh fruits or veggies, dried fruit, fruit cups in juice, natural applesauce cups
Simple cookies, graham crackers, fruit rolls, a few hard candies
Satisfying After School Hunger
When the kids hit the door after school, their first stop is usually the kitchen for a much-needed snack. Lunch was hours ago and their growing bodies need fuel.
Making sure the snack kids grab is a healthy one may make a difference. They need a nutritious snack that satisfies hunger and gives them energy, not one that interferes with their appetite for dinner.
Best energizing snacks include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and lean- or low-fat protein – not sugary, high calorie, high fat or high sodium snacks.
Here are some of my favorite, portable and fun grab-and-go snacks that can go in the back pack or be eaten at home:
- Trail mix – blend nuts, dried fruits, whole grain crackers, pretzels or cereal.
- Granola, fruit and nut bars – similar to trail mix in an easy to eat bar. Read the nutrition labels for bars high in protein, fiber and low in sugar.
- Fruit and yogurt – skewers of food with a dip of high protein Greek yogurt is a delicious snack and helps meet calcium requirements.
- Bean dip or hummus and veggies – kids love to dip and what's better than a protein rich dip paired with grape tomatoes, jicama, baby carrots or red pepper strips.
- Apples or celery, nut butter and dried fruit – slice up apples or celery logs, top with your favorite nut butter and a sprinkle of dried fruit for a sweet and savory snack.
- Toaster pizza – start with a whole grain English muffin or flat bread, top it with sliced tomatoes or tomato sauce and a sprinkle of cheese. Within minutes you have a yummy snack.
Fostering a Taste for Nutritious Foods
We all want our children to eat healthy and enjoy the taste of eating right. To help your kids expand their repertoire of healthy foods, there are a few rules of the road.
When it comes to children's food choices, according to research presented at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists meeting, sweet and salty flavors, repeated exposure, serving size and parental behavior are the key drivers.
Naturally kids tend to lean toward sweets like sweetened beverages, cookies and candies as well as salty foods that make them feel full like French fries and pizza. Most kids choose what they like and leave the rest.
Health is not usually a guiding factor when kids choose foods. They need to learn to like healthy foods by parental example and repeated exposure to small portions. When you continually expose a child to healthy foods, they become more familiar with them and are more likely to choose them. Observing parents enjoy healthy foods is a great way to help your children accept these foods without bribing or coercing them to finish their plates.
Out-of-the-Box Lunch Ideas
- Grilled cheese a'la' waffle – Use a waffle iron to create a whimsical version of the standard sandwich that can be enjoyed at room temperature. Serve with grapes, carrot sticks and 100% fruit juice.
- Veggie quesadilla – Use whatever veggies you have on hand layered between a whole grain tortilla with cheese and cook quickly to melt the cheese. Serve with apple slices and lowfat milk.
- Hard boiled egg-on-a-stick – Pair with popcorn, fruit slices to dip in a container of Greek yogurt along with a few cherry tomatoes and bottle of water.
- Roll it up! – Roll up string cheese, a slice of lean ham, red bell pepper slices and baby spinach in a whole grain wrap. Serve with 100% fruit juice and a few strawberries.
Need more inspiration?
One of my favorites for lunch ideas is Katie Morford's new book, Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love.