Packing an A+ Lunch

By Francie Szostak / Photography By Michelle McCammon | September 01, 2015
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packed lunch

Everyone wants to start the new school year off on the right foot. To help make 2015-2016 the healthiest and happiest school year yet, we sat down with a couple of mom/registered dietitians, to pick their brains for quick and healthy lunch options for kids of all ages. Julie Haase, MS, RD, CD is the Clinical Nutrition and Diabetes Management Manager at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. Nicole Weeks, RDN, CD, CLS is with the School District of West Allis-West Milwaukee. Julie is mom to Calvin, 6, and Nicole has two kids, son Corwin, 19, and stepdaughter Fiona, 22.

While both moms had different tips and ideas for nutritious school lunches, both could agree that engaging kids in the lunch process makes all the difference.

When packing a healthy lunch, is there a typical structure you use? For example, when I was growing up, we always got a PB&J, one piece of fruit and three cookies. That was the formula and it never changed. Do you do something similar or do you try to mix things up?

Julie: While I do have my typical standbys, there are just so many great options out there. We always try to have one type of whole grain, protein, fruit, veggie and a dairy item in each lunch. And every once in awhile, we’ll have a treat, which could be a cookie or fruit snack (which is NOT fruit, by the way)!

Nicole: We also try to follow a similar pattern. From first grade on, my son also packed his own lunch, but I had to approve what went in. This works great because kids are more likely to eat what they pack themselves! As the parent, you still need to oversee the process.

You mentioned including whole grains—is this typically wholegrain bread? Rice?

Julie: Yep, definitely bread or wholegrain crackers. For younger ones, anything that requires a fork gets tricky at lunch time.

Nicole: Or pita and wraps. There are so many great whole grain wraps on the market now.

Nowadays, nut butters aren’t always an option in cafeterias. What are other protein sources you include in lunches?

Nicole: My son loved turkey, turkey sandwiches, cheese….

Julie: We do lots of beans…. chickpeas too. Edamame.

Do you have any favorite ways to incorporate veggies into their lunches?

Julie: I find that my son likes to eat veggies plain and raw, and not mixed in with everything else. But he knows that he has to have a veggie, so it might be a bag of beans or cherry tomatoes.

Nicole: We used to take shredded carrots and throw those on a turkey sandwich for color and crunch. I also think that any time kids can touch their food—whether they are preparing it or eating it—it’s a good thing. Anything they can dunk or spread or do “fun things” with in their lunches helps encourage it to be eaten. So, taking yogurt and letting kids experiment with herbs and spices to make their own dip for fruit and veggies is a great ideas.

Is there anything that is particularly fast, easy and fun that you pack to ensure lunch is being eaten? We often do fresh produce tastings in school cafeterias and I noticed how short school lunches are! Kids often only have 15 minutes— they’re gabbing away so much they don’t have time to eat, and lots of food gets tossed in the garbage.

Julie: Hmm, that hasn’t really come up for us. I would say, do anything you can to make lunch colorful and fun because kids eat with their eyes just like adults. For fun you could make their sandwich out of wholegrain crackers, which would allow them to touch and interact with food, too.

Nicole: I always made sure things were as prepared as they could be—so try sending a sliced orange instead of a whole orange.

Julie: Definitely—take grapes off their stem, even. It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a time and effort saver for the kids.

Do you spend a lot of time prepping food, maybe one day a week, so it’s easy to pull items to add to lunches during the week?

Nicole: Yes. When I get home from the store, I wash and cut up all the fruits and veggies so they’re ready to go during the week and available as easy snack options.

Julie: We try to do the same thing too—have things ready to grab and go. Also, put things at kids’ eye level in the fridge, so when they’re helping to pack lunch, they see something healthy right when they open the door.

Nicole: You can even designate a drawer just for them! Everything in that spot in the fridge is always fair game for lunch.

Do you have favorite activities, whether it’s gardening or cooking, that help kids get excited to try and eat their food?

One thing I’ve observed on the farm at NuGenesis is that when children have a chance to harvest their own food, or grow it from start to finish, they are FAR more likely to gobble it up. Same goes for the kitchen. When kids get the chance to cook or prep some of their food, they are far more likely to eat it and are proud to serve it to their family.

Julie: Obviously, visiting a farm to see where food comes from, or even picking it from your garden is a great thing to do, but that’s not always realistic all the time. Going to the grocery store and engaging them there is, though. We let our son touch, smell and pick out his produce. I also let him select what we’re going to have at our house and in his school lunches for the week.

Helping kids feel that sense of ownership, whether it’s picking out the seeds you plant in your garden or their fruits and veggies for the week from the grocery store, is so important in getting them excited and willing to eat it.

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids


Rethink the Carrot Stick
How about a list of vegetables that make great “raw veggie sticks”? Try dunking them in yogurt, hummus, peanut butter and more!

Beets—Yes, raw beets! • Broccoli stalks and florets • Carrots Celery • Cucumber • Green Beans • Jicama • Mushrooms Radish • Sugar snap peas • Turnips—Trust us on this one! Zucchini

Creative Yogurt Dip
Start with unflavored, unsweetened Greek or regular yogurt and let your little lunch makers experiment with flavors and spices. Here are a few suggestions to get them started: Cinnamon and honey
Cucumber and parsley, blended into the yogurt
Spinach dip—no mayo, add pesto

Cracker Sandwich
Let your kids build their own cracker sandwiches for a fun, interactive lunch. These can be assembled the night before. Not into crackers? Angelic Bakehouse, located here in Milwaukee, makes great sprouted grain rolls and wraps for other sandwich alternatives. Check out these combinations:
Avocado and leftover chicken
Hummus and shredded carrots
Turkey, spinach and dried cranberries

Rainbow Hummus
A great way to incorporate more produce into lunches is to blend various roasted veggies into hummus and serve with more veggie sticks, wholegrain crackers, or pita bread. Bonus points for creative names! A friendly reminder: This should not be a way to “hide” veggies. Be honest with your kids about what’s in their new favorite lunch item. They’ll have so much fun eating their monster hummus that they won’t care it’s spinach and not slime that is making it green.
Halloween Hummus—pumpkin or carrots
Packer or Shrek Hummus—blend with spinach
Princess Hummus—roasted beets
Sunshine Hummus—yellow squash and turmeric

Article from Edible Milwaukee at
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