Back-to-school season can be an incredibly hectic time, and the last thing parents need on their plate (pun intended) is the pressure of packing the “perfect” school lunch. That’s why registered dietitian Amanda Blechman, Director of Health and Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, is telling parents they don’t have to stress — all it takes to give your kids a happy, healthy lunchtime experience are a few simple tips (and they don’t all have to do with nutrition!).
“When I think about what makes the “perfect” lunchbox, it’s not about the exact combination of nutrients or how socially shareable it looks,” said Blechman. “To me, the perfect lunch is one that’s perfect for you and your individual family — so something that’s easy for you to pack, that your kids will happily eat and that you can feel good about giving them.”
Blechman also emphasizes the importance of modeling a healthy relationship with food for your kids, pointing out that removing some of the stress that often accompanies the pressure to feed them “perfectly” with every single meal can help avoid creating an emotional burden tied to mealtime for them, too — something that will be incredibly helpful as they age.
Here are her five simple tips to make the lunch-packing process a little less stressful and a lot more fun:
- Get your kids involved. They’re more likely to want to eat the foods in their lunchbox if they had a role in picking them out. Have them help with the weekly grocery list or choose from a variety of (parent-approved) foods to pack the night before. (Do they feel like the carrot sticks and hummus tomorrow or ants on a log?) This gives them a sense of independence and ownership over their choices and gets them in the habit of tuning in to what kind of fuel their body is telling them it wants. You might be surprised to see that they naturally choose a variety of nutritious options!
- Include familiar foods. With so much changing for kids this time of year (new school, new routines, new friends), their lunchbox might not be the best place to try the latest and greatest TikTok trend. Packing foods you know they love vs. completely switching things up, especially at the beginning of a new school year, can add a welcome sense of familiarity to their day. “While I love a trending recipe as much as the next mom, too much newness can be overwhelming,” said Blechman. “I know my kids love smoothies, for example, so I’ll throw something like a nutritious, delicious Danimals Strawberry Smoothie in their lunchbox. It takes zero effort on my end, and I know my kids will be excited to see something they know and love when they sit down to eat.”
- Keep it simple. Don’t be afraid to turn last night’s dinner into today’s lunchbox meal, pack fruit that isn’t cut into cute shapes (chances are your kids will still eat it!) or reach for pre-packaged foods. “Nutrition doesn’t need to be as complicated as it’s often made out to be,” said Blechman. “Packaged foods can be just as nutritious as homemade and are a lifesaver when you’re strapped for time. I’m a big fan of a fruit and veggie pouch such as Happy Family Love My Veggies as an easy way to get my kids a full serving of organic veggies in their lunch or on the go.”
- Shoot for variety. When you pack a variety of different, nutritious foods, the odds are high that you’ll have a balanced lunch in the end. “I like my kids’ lunches to include five things,” said Blechman. “A protein, a fiber-rich carbohydrate, fruits, vegetables and dairy. It’s a simple framework you can use to guide the packing process.” One example she shared of this formula at work is a turkey roll-up made with a whole wheat tortilla to check both the protein and fiber-rich carbohydrate boxes plus some unsweetened applesauce for the fruit, carrot sticks for the veggie and a box of shelf-stable milk, like Horizon Organic Lowfat Milk or a plant-based option such as Silk Single Serve Vanilla Almond Milk (she likes the unsweetened variety) as the dairy option.
- Pack a positive note and even a little treat to put a smile on their face as they enjoy their lunch! At the end of the day, food should be fun, and a little added sugar isn’t the end of the world as long as it’s balanced in the context of overall nutrition. In fact, serving “dessert” foods alongside the rest of your child’s meal helps teach them about a balanced lifestyle and develop a healthy relationship with sweets that they can take into adulthood. The most important thing for kids to know is that their lunchbox was packed with love!