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Build a Healthy Lunch

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The summer months provided a welcome break from routine. Most enjoyable this summer was a reprieve from packing my preschooler’s lunch every day. Typically packed with love and forethought, but on top of dinner, dishes and bath night after night, I admit it can sometimes add to the evening monotony.

So here we are beginning another school year, and school lunch is back on parents’ to-do list.

But by keeping it simple, you can send your child off to school with a nutritious midday meal that they might not trade and you might enjoy making.

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate at offers a good starting place for any meal planning.

Replacing the food pyramid, MyPlate encourages making half your meals fruits and vegetables, adding a lean protein, whole grain and dairy source. Use this balanced plate to create a list of lunch ideas to refer to during the busy week. This is also a perfect opportunity to involve kids – asking for their likes, dislikes and new favorites. Kids are more likely to eat what they’ve chosen. Older kids can use this list to pack their own.

Below are ideas to help inspire creative and healthy lunches. Add your family favorites, adjusting for any food allergies, and you’ll have weeks of ideas that go beyond daily PB&J.

Though if your kid prefers this nutritious standby, add variety with whole grain breads and richly colored, sliced fruits and vegetables each day. Try topping the sandwich with shredded carrots or raisins for color and texture. For variety, offer cucumber coins one day and cut them into sticks the next. Sandwiches and wraps are great because they are easy to make, travel well and you can pack nutrition into a handheld feast for on-the-go kids.


Easy, quick ideas

Monday: Bow-tie pasta with beans, hard-boiled egg, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls on a stick and a peach.

Tuesday: Cucumber and cream cheese on whole wheat mini-bagel, blueberries and trail mix (cereal, pretzels, nuts, raisins).

Wednesday: Leftover grilled chicken strips and jicama with dip, couscous with raisins and frozen cherries.

Thursday: Tuna salad pita pocket, carrot sticks, melon cubes and yogurt.

Friday: Mashed pinto beans and rice wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla (cut into bite-size pieces), snap peas and grapes.


Use leftovers to save time and energy. Slice an extra chicken breast from dinner and mix with plain low-fat or nonfat Greek yogurt, chopped walnuts, grapes and a sprinkle of curry for a tasty chicken salad pita.

Got leftover brown rice? Mix it with frozen vegetables and oil-based salad dressing for a cold salad. For something sweet, add raisins, slivered almonds, and sprinkle of cinnamon.

On days when it’s impossible to get out the door with a lunch bag, remember a school lunch is available. Some nutritional changes at APS Food and Nutrition Services this year focus on the benefits of a plant-based diet. In addition to daily salads, all school cafeterias likely will offer Meatless Mondays featuring meals such as vegetarian chili beans and cheese enchiladas.

When possible, fruits and vegetables on lunch trays are locally grown, and homemade rolls at APS are now whole grain.

Get familiar with the school lunch menu by reading it over with your child, have him tell you what he would choose and talk about healthy meal choices.

The right gear is also essential for a healthy lunch and can help get young kids excited about homemade meals – so choose an insulated lunch bag and send an ice pack with perishable foods.



Colorful and delicious, this salad is a favorite in my house. It’s a nutritious side dish for dinner and equally tasty in a pita pocket for lunch the next day.

Makes 8 ( 1/2 cup) servings

2 cups corn, fresh or frozen

2 cups black beans, drained and rinsed

1 small red bell pepper, diced

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced (optional)

1 tablespoon cumin seed

1/4 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Combine corn, beans, pepper, jalapeño and cumin together in a medium bowl. Set aside. In a small bowl, combine lime juice, mustard and salt; stir and whisk in oil. Pour dressing over bean mixture, add cilantro and gently stir to coat. Cover and chill at least one hour before serving.


Jennie McCary is a local registered dietitian, who practices in work-site wellness and helps run NM Super Fit Family Challenge, a family-based obesity prevention program in the community. She can be reached at