When my kids were just starting school, we invested in a whole set of lunch containers. They came in different sizes (small and large), were dishwasher safe and easy for the kids to use themselves. They were a bit more pricey than other lunch containers, but 10 years later we’re still using them.
It wasn’t just getting high-quality lunch containers that was an important part of our lunch routine, it was teaching our kids about what went into those containers that mattered. The small container was for treats. Two large-size containers were protein and carbohydrates. And two large-size containers were for vegetables and fruit.
It was a simple way to teach healthy eating as set out by the current Canada Food-guide: food-guide.canada.ca/en. The recommendation is for half of what we eat to come from the vegetable and fruit food group, whereas treats should only make up a small part of our diet.
We started right away, letting our kids decide what they wanted for lunch in preschool. By Grade 1, they were filling their lunch containers and by Grade 3 they were chopping up their own vegetables and fruit.
Now that our oldest is in high school, obviously he is packing his lunch without any parental involvement. But I’m pretty sure he’s still following our traditional lunch set up because we keep buying vegetables and they keep getting eaten.
Involving your kids in food prep, is parenting for the future. It takes time to teach and supervise a seven-year-old in the kitchen. However, the skills they learn and the established routines are so powerful that they’ll keep them up, even when they’re in high school. And that is pretty powerful.
Healthy lunches can look like whatever your kids enjoy eating. The key is to offer a variety of options and teach them about proportions.
Here’s some suggestions for filling healthy lunch boxes.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits are often more popular with kids than vegetables. The textures and flavors of vegetables can be difficult for them to get used to. So offer a variety of different options and they’ll be sure to find something they like. My secret to getting them to eat vegetables is to serve it first, while I’m cooking the rest of dinner. Hungry kids are way more likely to enjoy a salad.
• Carrots, cucumbers, peppers, cherry tomatoes are classic.
• Raw green beans and snow peas are popular.
• Microwave frozen edamame until it is just warm.
• Serve defrosted mixed frozen vegetables.
• Steamed broccoli and cauliflower are nice with a dipping sauce.
• Offer salad or leftover cooked vegetables.
• Try kohlrabi or diakon radish spears.
• Dust apple slices with cinnamon to prevent browning.
Carbs are the quintessential kid-friendly food. Whole grains pack in a lot more nutrition than processed food. So try switching up your white rice for brown basmati or jasmine rice instead. Whole grains more appealing when accompanied by a flavorful sauce.
• A slice of bread with butter
• Whole wheat pasta
• Crackers and corn chips
• Rice, millet, quinoa
Nuts are generally not allowed in school lunches, but if your kid loves peanut butter or roasted almonds, be sure to stock them in your snack cupboard. Then they can help themselves after school. Here are some school-friendly options.
• Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
• Hummus or chickpeas
• Cooked meat and smoked salmon
• Hard-boiled egg
• Tofu (tofu puffs are popular)
Treats are anything that is high in salt, sugar, or unhealthy fat. So vegetable chips, sesame snaps and rice crackers are treats. They are perfect for putting into a small lunch container. Small containers are also the perfect place for muffins, cookies and pretzels.
Dips and sauces are a great way to make healthy lunches more fun! They are good for dipping vegetables or pouring over rice. Here are two dips that really make my kids happy!
Creamy Herb and Yogurt Dip (Prep time: 10 minutes)
This dill and green onion is popular with our kids. Feel free to leave out the garlic powder or swap the dill for basil or parsley. It’s perfect for your favourite dip flavours.
1 green onion
11⁄2 cups of full-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp garlic powder
1⁄2 tsp dried dill
1⁄2 tsp salt and black pepper, to taste
Dice the green onion. Measure the yogurt, mayonnaise and other ingredients into a serving bowl. Stir to make sure everything is well mixed. Taste and add more salt, if needed.
Cover with an air-tight lid and place the dip in the fridge at least 30 minutes before serving to allow the flavours to infuse. Use within one week.
Dill Pickle Dip (Soaking time: 2 hours, Prep time: 5 minutes)
This vegan-friendly dip is hugely popular with kids. If cashews aren’t allowed in your child’s classroom, swap them with sunflower seeds instead. It won’t be quite as creamy, but it will still be delicious!
1 cup of cashews (or sunflower seeds)
2 cups of water
1⁄2 cup of dill pickle brine
1 tsp dried dill
1⁄2 tsp garlic powder
1⁄2 tsp onion powder
1⁄2 tsp salt and sugar, to taste
Measure the cashews into a large measuring cup. Cover with water (approximately 2 cups) and leave the cashews to soak for 1 to 2 hours. Sunflower seeds will need to soak for 2 to 3 hours.
After the cashews have soaked, drain the water. Place the cashews in a blender with the pickle brine, dill, garlic powder and onion powder. Grind on high until the cashews are a smooth paste. Add additional water at this point to get it to the desired consistency (dip or sauce).
Taste and add salt or sugar if needed. It will depend on the flavour of the pickle brine. Sometimes really sour pickles need a bit of sugar to balance the acidity.
Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.