To celebrate #back2school, we are excited to share some tips for back to school lunch-packing. We know, every parent’s favourite activity, perhaps a fair trade-off for not having to entertain little ones during the day?!
Below, we will be sharing ways to pack a nutritional punch in your kids’ lunches and answering some common questions when it comes to assembling a nutritious lunch. These tips are 100% applicable for packing your own lunch, whether you are looking to switch things up, or ensure you are packing food that nourishes, satisfies, and fuels.
Did you know that most children meet their estimated needs for protein? Average daily requirements for school-age children are as follows:
- 4-8y -> 19g/day
- 9-13y -> 34g/day
Below we’ve listed some great sources of protein for lunch:
- ¾ cup greek yogurt -> 14-18g
- 1 cup soy milk -> 7g
- 1 cup cow’s milk -> 9g
- Egg -> 6g
- 1 oz cheese (~ 4 dice in size) -> 6g
- 2 tbsp seed or soy butter -> 6-8g
- ¼ cup hemp seeds -> 15g
Including 1-2 protein sources with your child’s lunch will help them meet their needs and keep them full until they arrive home from school!
Question: What is a good way to approach building a nourishing lunch?
- Aim for at least 3 of the 4 food groups in the lunchbox to ensure a variety of nutrients.
- Registered Dietitian Sarah Remmer‘s “Rule of 5” utilizes the categories from the new food guide:
Choose 1 fruit + 1 veggie + 2 protein foods + 1 whole grain or starchy veggie
If either of these food packing strategies resonates with you, throw together a lunch packing cheat sheet to stick on the fridge or pantry door. This sheet can guide your shopping list each week, and can act as a tool for both you AND your kiddos to plan quick lunches that don’t take as much thought.
Reflection: Do you have any rules of thumbs or lunch-packing hacks?
In this day and age of kids menus and misleading packaged snacks labels claiming to contain servings of fruits and veggies- all of which are void of fibre, it’s no wonder the frequency and consistency of #2 in kiddos can be a concern.
The Standard American Diet (think: breakfast cereal, sandwich with deli meat for lunch, frozen or fast food meal for supper) provides minimal opportunity to achieve our fibre targets, with the average fibre consumption barely reaching half our needs (estimated average needs for school-age kiddos are below).
- 4-8y -> 25g/day
- 9-13y -> 26g/day for girls // 31g/day for boys
Here are some simple tips to boost fibre at meals and snacks:
- Choose a higher fibre cereal (4+ grams of fibre per serving) for your l.o.
- Aim to pack a fruit or veggie at each meal and snack. Make adjustments slowly, so to prevent bloat and digestive distress!
- Swap your go-to meat recipe for a meatless option every other week! Some of our favourites lately are curried lentils and peanut butter sesame marinated tempeh. These can be packed as leftovers in a thermos, or even cold!
*Encourage fluids to keep things moving along well! Pack a milk/alternative along with a small water bottle for your l.o.
Another contributor to constipation, which is very common in kids and often a source of tummy aches, is lack of toileting routine, or fear of toileting. Full disclosure: I (Syd) had a major fear of public washrooms as a child and can attest to the digestive woes that accompanied this fear and avoiding the washroom until I was home. #keepingitreal. This is an area worth exploring with your child, what is holding them back? Are they afraid? It may help to visit their school washroom with them before class to ease any discomfort. At home, start by encouraging your child to sit on the toilet for 5 minutes after breakfast when the reflex to go #2 is strongest.
As important as it is to understand some of the key nutrients and foods to include in your’s & your child’s lunches and snacks, lets bring it back to what we buy at the store, pack in our lunch bags, and eat… FOOD.
Britt has put together some nutrient-dense bento box style lunches and snacks that nourish. In particular, you’ll notice some great sources of protein and fibre in these options.
Why not switch things up and construct a breakfast style lunchbox! Britt’s breakfast bento box meal includes:
- 1 clementine
- 1 apple
- 3 mini whole wheat chocolate chip pancakes
- 100g Greek yogurt (Oikos Limited Edition Apple Cinnamon)
- Nut butter (Justins Honey Almond Butter is pictured, you can sub for 1-2 tbsp soy nut or seed butter for school-friendly lunches)
Britt’s tip: Make a big batch of mini pancakes and freeze them, or freeze leftovers from your weekend breakfast! They also make a great snack if you pop them in the toaster and top with fruit/nut or seed butter!
Syd’s tip: Include a make your own yogurt parfait for your child’s nutrition break/snack. Add a serving of plain Greek yogurt + fresh or frozen fruit (berries, banana, peaches, apple) + sunflower/pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts or chia seeds + nut free granola + a little cinnamon. Customize depending on what your child will eat!
Finger foods for the win! This box includes:
- ½ cup grape tomatoes
- 1 mini cucumber, sliced
- ¾ cup sliced bell peppers
- 1 apple, sliced
- 50g Swiss cheese
- 1 hard boiled egg
- 1 homemade muffin (opt for nut free for school lunches)
Reflection: What are your favourite breakfast for lunch or finger food lunch go-to options?
Dietary fat has had a bad rap over the years. In pursuit of lowering fat levels in food, the food industry replaced fats with fillers such as refined carbohydrates and oils high in omega 6 fats. In doing so, we lost out on some of the beneficial properties offered by fat in our food such as:
- Keeping us full/satisfied between meals and snacks – Fat has a longer transit time through our digestive tract which slows down the movement of food and gives us the sensation of being full for longer
- Supporting the absorption of fat soluble nutrients- Consuming a source of fat with meals allows our bodies to transport vitamins A, D, E and K through our intestines to carry out countless amazing functions
For growing children, fat is especially important for supporting needs during growth spurts (fat contains more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein) and providing building blocks for cells to support brain health and messengers such as hormones. In fact, research suggests lower fat intake in children increases risk of nutrient deficiencies and poor growth.
Tips for adding FAT to lunch and snacks:
- Pack ¼ cup mashed avocado with chopped veggies and whole grain crackers (Wholly Guacamole pre-portioned packs are great, or thaw frozen avocado as needed
- Add cheese to applesauce or serve with a fibre-containing food (fruit, veg, crackers) – Has anyone else tried applesauce + cheese?!
- Hard boiled eggs
Question: What should I do for snacks?
Reframe snacks as “mini meals” and aim for at least 2 food groups, or our favourite rule of thumb (protein, fat, fibre).
Registered Dietitian Thalia from Family Snack Nutritionist makes a great point: “By serving mini meals we give [kids] the opportunity to make up any nutrient deficits they have. It also makes snacks less exciting (meaning your child is less likely to skip a meal to get a snack)”. – as opposed to serving a highly processed or packaged food every snack-time, which will be opted for first, and fill up your little’s belly with nutrient-poor calories.
[EAT THE RAINBOW]
*Insert eye roll from lunch packers who are convinced a lunch box with colour will never fly with their kiddo*
Packing the rainbow in yours & your little’s lunches means increasing the fruit and veggie content. These foods are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre, water and phytonutrients to help us meet our basic needs, while packing a disease-prevention punch. We all know by now that half our plates “should” be filled with fruits and veggies in some form.
I (Syd) will be the first to admit this does NOT always happen on my plate. And guess what?! Since I’ve been on a roll with confessions lately, I will also say simply packing PRE-chopped veggies with a dip (two common food strategies) does not always work for me. Sure, it may be a balanced snack… but if you remember back to our conversation on FULLNESS versus SATISFACTION a few weeks back… this food combination does not always satisfy me.
We love this infographic from @kids.eat.in.colour that helps remove the pressure of always having to offer a veggie. Instead, capitalize on what your child has been accepting, especially in the fruit department!
- Offer a variety of amounts (preferably very small quantities if a food is new to your child) and types of fruit in your child’s lunch.
- Make a slow cooker batch of applesauce with little-no added sugar + cinnamon for some zing! This snack could be paired with a hardboiled egg, cheese string or nut-free energy ball.
- The F + V still counts if it’s added to a baked good like pumpkin loaf, berry/bran muffin, zucchini muffin, or mashed into oats! Savory dishes like mini quiche cups with added veggies or even leftovers re-heated and stored in a thermos is an easy way to repurpose already prepped food and save you time packing lunches.
- Be a SMOOTH operator and throw together a smoothie before work/school. Trial recipes with milk/alternative + oats/ground flax/hemp hearts + unsweetened yogurt/kefir + handful of spinach + frozen fruit that are accepted by both yourself and your child to save you time! Pack in a sealed container for your child’s nutrition break.
- Become a big dipper! I mentioned the traditional veggies + hummus combination doesn’t always work for me, but there are lots of forms a dip can take (soy nut or seed butter ~ yogurt alone/dressed with cinnamon, hemp hearts, etc/mixed with seed butter ~ hummus or another lentil/bean dip ~ mashed avocado or guac ~ tzatziki) and many things to pair it with!
Reflection: What are your strategies for increasing yours AND your little’s fruit and veggie consumption at lunch?
To wrap up our series on packing a nourishing lunch, here are some BONUS bento boxes by Britt
Colourful Finger Food Box:
- ½ cup cherry tomatoes
- ½ cup carrot sticks
- 100g Greek yogurt
- 3 date and pecan rolls (Britt loves the Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice @ndmedjooldates) *For a nut-free option, try stuffing sliced dates with a soy nut or seed butter!
- 2 mini whole wheat pitas
- 1 mini cucumber, sliced
- ½ cup skyr tzatziki
Balanced Bento Box: showcasing a beautiful balance of colourful foods, fibre, protein and fat!
- 2 energy bites *Ensure the balls are bound by soy nut or seed butter to ensure they are classroom friendly!
- ½ cup mixed berries
- ⅓ cup hummus
- 6 whole grain crackers
- 1 mini cucumber, sliced
- ½ cup carrot sticks
- ⅓ cup cheese
- ½ cup grapes
Syd’s Tip: Hummus can be rotated for a variety of protein/fat containing alternatives such as tuna, mashed eggs, mashed avocado or greek yogurt/skyr tzatziki! There’s no need to stress over being extra creative each day and pack an entirely different combination of food.
Reflection: How do you simplify your lunch packing routine?
Sources: Unlock Food, Sarah Remmer RD, Government of Canada, Jill Castle RD, American Academy of Pediatrics , Healthline, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Article by: Sydney Withers RD
Bento Box Photos by: Brittaney Berendsen RD