School looks a little different this year for a lot of families. And with that comes a new set of challenges, including the extra responsibility of planning lunch every day. No more school cafeteria lunches — it’s up to you now, parents! Trusty employee, home-school teacher and chef.
We all have extra responsibilities on our plates these days, so here’s advice on how you can make a balanced lunch in a timely manner.[READ: How to Work From Home Without Gaining Weight.]
Focus on the Food Groups
The goal is to create a balanced lunch that fuels your child throughout the day, rather than leaving them hungry and wanting to snack all afternoon. To do this, make sure the meal has adequate protein, fiber and some healthy fats. I find too often that lunches consist of high-carb, high-sugar snack foods. Because of this, kids get a blood sugar spike and often crash in the early afternoon. If you include something from each food group, you can achieve a blood sugar balance without having to overthink it.
My best suggestion is to make a fun chart for your house that kids can use daily to circle or select the foods they want from each group. Use a white board in your kitchen or Excel sheet on your computer, or have the kids make and decorate a small poster. There are a lot of sample templates online, plus some that you can download and print for your family. This way the kids get involved in selecting what they’re going to eat.
You can mix and match foods from each group; it doesn’t have to be as boring as a sandwich and sides (though it totally can be). Put all your groups together to make a “big kid lunchable” or a snack tray-type lunch. The important part is to have variety.
Proteins: leftover chicken, hard-boiled eggs, tuna packets, lunch meat, beans/chickpeas, frozen meatballs, chicken sausages, vegetarian alternatives (veggie burgers, tofu).
Grains: whole-grain bread or wraps, brown rice, quinoa, potatoes or sweet potatoes, crackers, pretzels, granola bar, popcorn, chips or tortilla chips.
Fruits: any whole fruit (apples, pears, peaches), berries, raisins, unsweetened applesauce.
Vegetables: raw veggies (carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers, baby tomatoes), leftover veggies from dinner, frozen veggies (including veggie spirals), salad, kale chips
Dairy: white milk, unsweetened milk alternatives (soy, almond, pea protein) Greek yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese.
Fats/dips: avocado/guacamole, humus, ranch dressing, Italian dressing, olives, nuts/nut butters.[See: Heart-Healthy Snacks.]
Meal Prep Mixed Dishes
If you take a little extra time on the weekend, it can make the weekdays much easier. Consider preparing a pasta salad, crockpot meal or another mixed dish that you can keep in the refrigerator for three to four days and dish out as needed. You’ll get your protein, fiber and healthy fats all in one. Then add a fruit and veggie on the side, and you’re good to go.
Italian pasta salad: high-protein or whole-grain pasta, meat, cheese and veggies with Italian dressing or olive oil/seasoning blend.
Mexican quinoa salad: quinoa, beans, corn and veggies with a zesty Mexican vinaigrette.
Chicken/tuna salad: protein of choice, mayo or try using avocado/Greek yogurt, grapes or dried cranberries, celery with various seasonings. Serve with whole grain crackers or in a wrap.
Burrito bowl: ground meat, rice or quinoa, sautéed veggies. All prepped and ready to throw together quickly! Add some cheese, avocado and salsa and you’re good to go, all in one bowl.[SEE: Heart-Healthy and Easy Fish Recipes.]
One of the perks of lunch at home is you can throw together what you ate the night before. The trick is to serve it to the kiddos in a different way. If you had grilled chicken for dinner, put it in a chicken wrap or chop it up to make a chicken salad for the next day. If you have spaghetti and meatballs in the dridge, put the extra meatballs on a flatbread and turn it into a quick pizza. Burrito bowl the night before? Try a taco salad the next day. And anything “build your own” is an added bonus. Just set the toppings or food out and let the kids do it themselves. They’ll be more likely to eat it, and you can make your next virtual meeting.
Jennifer Willoughby, RD, CSP, LD is a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, board-certified in pediatric nutrition. Jennifer attended the Ohio State University for her undergraduate degree and then completed her dietetic internship at Cleveland Clinic, prior to becoming a member of the pediatric nutrition support team. Her primary position is in a sub-specialty outpatient clinic where she sees patients in the departments of endocrinology, general pediatrics and adolescent medicine, complex care clinic, general surgery and allergy. She is an educator for the Cleveland Clinic FitYouth program, a 12-week pediatric weight management program. In addition, Jennifer is actively involved in community programs, and her expertise has been featured in a variety of media outlets.