Packing a Healthy Lunch Box

by Leanne Ely, C.N.C.


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Over the years, the school cafeteria has become a place of too many choices. From franchise fast food offerings to the usual stuff we grew up with, most kids don't know how to pick a healthy lunch or are not inclined to do so considering the many tempting offerings. The alternative is packing your child's lunchbox and it is probably one of the healthiest things parents can do for their school-aged children. The expense isn't just in the pocketbook either. Not eating healthfully costs dearly healthwise.

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids

Lunch is a time to balance your child's meal. Having a decent protein/carb ratio in your child's lunchbox will help him or her finish the day with energy to spare. And while sandwiches are okay, the Ultimate Tortilla Roll-ups (see recipe) is perfect lunchbox fare. Not only are they easy to make and pack well, kids also truly love them. There are hundreds of variations on this theme, too. You don't have to just stick with any one recipe. Tortillas make great transportation for almost any filling. Experiment a little bit and try different things. Even your basic PB & J takes on new meaning when wrapped in a tortilla.

Most kids feel their lunch box isn't quite packed unless there are chips aboard (not the healthiest food around). Baked tortilla chips are a good option or even better are baked Pita Chips (see recipe). Not only are they healthy and inexpensive, they're also simple enough to make that your 5th grader can crank out a whole slew of them for the week. If you're going to make chips, you might as well throw in a little dip and some veggies. Basic Black Bean Dip (see recipe) could be made in mass quantities and frozen in little plastic containers to save time. It couldn't be easier to make, but it's even easier to thaw. The only trick is getting the container home!

Don't skimp on the fruit. Bananas are great for lunchboxes. They are convenient, a great source of potassium, and come in their own carrying cases. Pack it on the very top though, and wrap it in a couple of napkins for protection. There is nothing worse than a bruised and mushy banana.

And for a great dessert, pack a Puffy Grain Chewy Bar (see recipe), which is a much healthier alternative to the marshmallow-laden rice crispie bars. This is another easy recipe the kids can make themselves.

But what about a beverage? Where's the juice, soda or milk? According to the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), drinking too much juice (yes, even 100% fruit juice) can contribute to the problems of cavities, childhood obesity, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems, such as excessive gas and bloating. Get your child into the good habit of drinking water. Try freezing a small bottle of water instead of the usual juice and flavored drinks. Most children don't drink enough water and packing that frozen bottle is a smart move. By the time lunch rolls around, the bottle has served two purposes: hydrating your child and keeping his lunch cold. Besides, those goofy blue ice thingies always seem to leak their blue stuff everywhere.

Packing a healthy lunch box isn't a big deal and something you can easily train your child to do. As a matter of fact, children who learn to pack a healthy lunch box are the kids who learn to make responsible nutritional decisions as they grow up. Good habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

Allowing your children free range in a school cafeteria can be hazardous to their health, unless they can make good choices. That is, if there are even any good choices available.

Healthy and Easy Kid's Lunch Packables

Curds and No Whey - No kidding! Try drizzling a little honey over the top of that cottage cheese and some cinnamon. Kids think it's great.

Cue the Carrots - The produce department keeps making it easier for busy moms. Those little carrots are indispensable for packing it right and the price is reasonable, too.

Cheese on a String - Or whatever other type of cheese, ready to go in the cheese section of the dairy case.

All Dried Out - Like just a handful of raisins for example. Get the itty-bitty boxes and encourage your child to put them on their cottage cheese. It's really good that way!

Apple This Way - Quarter the apple and sprinkle with cinnamon in a baggie. You won't have to hear about it turning brown and the flavor is just like apple pie. Put a little plastic container with some peanut butter for dipping in there too, and you've got some protein thrown in on the side, too.

Healthy Kid's Lunch Recipes

All Recipes are from Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Right (Champion Press)

The Ultimate Tortilla Roll-Up
Makes One

flour tortilla -- *health food stores have a sprouted wheat tortilla that is delicious
1/2 ounce low-fat cream cheese -- you can use less
1 ounce chicken breast without skin -- tuna, or whatever you have on hand
2 slices tomato, chopped
1 romaine lettuce leaf, shredded
1 green onion, minced fine (optional)
1 teaspoon vinaigrette -- whatever you have on hand

Lay tortilla flat and spread cream cheese all over. In a small bowl, toss lettuce, tomato and optional green onion with vinaigrette. Set aside.

Lay chicken out evenly over cream cheese. Spread lettuce mixture evenly on top of the chicken.

Roll up like you would a sleeping bag and secure with a toothpick or just place on a plate, seam side down. If this is for a lunch box, wrap securely with plastic wrap.

Per serving: 373 Calories (kcal); 11g Total Fat; (26% calories from fat); 16g Protein; 4g Dietary Fiber; 54g Carbohydrate; 21mg Cholesterol; 483mg Sodium

Chips for Dips
Serves 12 (as an appetizer)

12 corn tortillas -- or pita, whole wheat tortillas, non-stick spray (health food stores have ones without the propellant, or you can use an oil pump)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet generously with non-stick spray.

Stack the tortillas and cut them into 6 even pieces, sort of like a pizza.

Place on the cookie sheet and lightly spray the tortillas. Bake for 8 minutes or so checking to make sure they don't get too brown.

Let cool and serve with hummus or Black Bean Dip. Put a generous portion of veggies out with the chips, too.

NOTE: Make sure you only use the non-stick sprays from the health food store. The others are full of propellant and unless you plan on flying your food, propellant doesn't belong there. Or buy an oil pump that uses air to help spray. Available at Wal-Mart and other stores, for under $10. Great investment.

Per serving: 56 Calories (kcal); 1g Total Fat; (9% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 2 g Dietary Fiber; 12g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 40mg Sodium

Basic Black Bean Dip
Serves 12 (as appetizer)

1 can black beans (15 oz.) -- drained
1 can green chili peppers -- drained
1/4 cup salsa -- use what you have
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon garlic -- pressed
1 squeeze lime or lemon

Dump it all into a food processor and whirl like mad. When it's done, plop it into a bowl and serve with any type of chip that turns your key. But preferably with a healthy one you made from these recipes.

Per serving: 14 Calories (kcal); trace Total Fat; (11% calories from fat); 1g Protein; 3g Dietary Fiber; 2g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 58mg Sodium

Puffy Grain Chewy Bars
Serves 12

1 cup each: Puffed kamut, brown rice, millet from the health food store or use 3 cups regular puffed wheat from the grocery store. Or try Kashi cereal.
1/2 cup peanut butter -- or almond butter
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon molasses, blackstrap

Dump the cereal in a big bowl. Heat the honey, peanut butter and molasses together. Pour into cereal mixture, working quickly to get it mixed. Press very firmly into a 13 X 9 inch pan. Let sit for as long as you can wait (the longer, the harder) and then dig in.

Per serving: 108 Calories (kcal); 5g Total Fat; (42% calories from fat); 3g Protein; 4 g Dietary Fiber; 14g Carbohydrate; 0mg Cholesterol; 51mg Sodium

NOTE: Variations of a theme: Try using brown rice crispies in place of the puffed rice, and toasting the millet and kamut on a cookie sheet (425 oven till toasted) for a crispy texture instead. For more variety, use this recipe as a base and add raisins, chopped dates or chopped nuts.


Leanne Ely is a New York Times best selling author of Body Clutter and the popular Saving Dinner cookbook series. According to Woman's Day Magazine, she is the expert on family cooking.

Leanne's syndicated newspaper column, The Dinner Diva can be found in 250 newspapers nationwide and in Canada. Her vast broadcast experience includes media satellite tours, QVC several times as well as guesting on several national television shows, including HGTV's Simple Solutions, ABC Family's Living the Life, Ivanhoe's Smart Woman, Small Talk for Parents and Talk of the Town. She has guest chef-ed on the cooking show, Carolina Cooks and has taught cooking classes all over the country for Bloomingdale's.

In addition, she is a seasoned radio personality. Leanne's own radio show, Heart of A Woman aired during drive time in two major California markets, Los Angeles and San Diego. Her current show, The Dinner Diva is one of the top Blog Talk Radio shows on the Internet.

On the Internet, she pens the Food for Thought column for the immensely popular, FlyLady.net, with over half a million readers weekly. She has been featured in Woman's Day magazine, the Chicago Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Orange County Register - to name a few. Additionally, she is a sought after speaker and has spoken all over the country, with keynote addresses to corporate and non-profit entities. SavingDinner.com. Visit Leanne Ely on Google+.

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