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Creating Healthy Lunches with Kids

Getting kids involved in their own meal preparation helps them think about what they're eating. (AP File Photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Oreos dipped in a pudding cup, washed down with fruit punch is not an OK lunch. You might be surprised by this and similar eats that kids pull out of their lunch boxes daily at school. I was reminded of this recently when talking with a friend about her first-grader’s desire for lunches more like her friends (the cookie lunch).

As parents, it’s tough to balance good nutrition with our child’s plea for more “fun food.” It becomes more challenging as kids get older and are influenced by peers and their environment. While we can’t compete with the billions of food marketing dollars targeting youth, parents remain a powerful influence as the No. 1 role model for their child. And one of the best ways to flex this power is to cook with your child.

The benefits of involving kids and teens in planning and cooking meals are endless. It fosters creativity, appreciation for food, and is an opportunity to talk about nutrition and more. And kids are more likely to eat food that they help grow, select and prepare. So whether it’s veggies or protein you’re pushing, getting kids in the kitchen introduces them to food in a fun and approachable way. Of course I know this, but as a full-time working mom, I don’t feel like I have the time to do all the things that I want to do, and when evening madness hits, I can quickly throw together a balanced lunch on my own. So far my son hasn’t complained, but before long he’s going to come home asking for a cookie lunch too. So, as part of this Lunch Bunch Challenge, my goal is to prepare and cook more food with my preschooler – starting with one lunch and one dinner a week. I encourage you to do the same, and if you already involve your kids, share your best strategies for making it happen during the busy week. Here are some simple ideas to get planning and cooking together:

  • Invite your child into the kitchen for simple tasks. Young ones can wash, peel, pour, stir, mash.
  • Help your child find a few recipes they’d like to try for lunch – check out this website or a kid-friendly cookbook at the library.
  • Visit the market to find a new colorful fruit and vegetable to try.
  • Plan a week’s worth of lunches, using MyPlate and color as guides, remembering that leftovers work great too.
  • If needed, help your child read the recipe and locate the necessary ingredients in the house.
  • Wash hands with soap and water.
  • Let kids go for it, supervising and helping younger ones with any steps requiring cutting, cooking or baking. Embrace the mess they create and instead focus on their gleeful face.

Equally important to taste, eye-appeal can generate excitement around a packed lunch. I’m a fan of individual reusable containers placed in a lunch box, such as those from Laptop Lunches. You can find them at Whole Foods or These bento-style containers encourage packing a variety food groups and easily accommodate last night dinner. Start planning and cooking lunches with kids when they’re young and they’ll probably be creatively designing their own bento box lunches in middle school.

Here are 10 bento box lunch ideas that can be created from leftovers or over the weekend:

  • Pumpkin waffle sandwich with date-nut cream cheese, pear, roasted potatoes and peppers. How to: mix softened cream cheese, a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt, sprinkle of cinnamon, chopped dates and walnuts. Spread on leftover whole grain pumpkin waffle square.
  • Japanese sticky rice ball, peanut-y chicken slices, edamame, and pear. How to: mix leftover rice with grated carrots, finely chopped cucumber, form balls with wet hands, roll in toasted sesame seeds.
  • Tortellini and veggie towers, roasted chickpeas, strawberries and blueberries. How to: drain and rinse beans, pour on baking pan, drizzle a little olive oil and bake in oven.
  • Lentils and brown rice, cucumber slices, frozen cherries. How to: check out this national winning recipe for Lentils of the Southwest created by students from Sweeney Elementary in Santa Fe.
  • Turkey or veggie burger with Swiss cheese and lettuce in pita pocket, corn on cob, oranges.
  • Tuna roll, sugar snap peas, apple slices, yogurt. How to: Mix canned tuna with plain Greek yogurt, scoop on flattened whole grain bread, top with shredded carrots and thinly sliced cucumber, roll up and slice.
  • Mini veggie quiches, orange wedges, oat blueberry muffin. How to: sauté chopped onion, spinach, mix with whisked eggs, cottage cheese, shredded parmesan cheese, bake in greased muffin pan. These and homemade muffins freeze well.
  • Rice noodles with tofu slices and broccoli, yogurt and granola, melon balls.
  • Crunchy peanut butter wrap, carrot sticks, frozen grapes. How to: spread natural peanut butter on whole grain tortilla, sprinkle with honey and Uncle Sam’s whole grain cereal, roll up and slice into bite-size pieces.
  • Pesto pasta pinwheels with peas and parmesan, hard-boiled egg, cauliflower, berries and mango.

Jennie McCary is a local dietitian specializing in worksite wellness, family nutrition and childhood obesity prevention. She likes to run and practice yoga, and is happy eating a green salad for lunch every weekday.