The Art and Science of Packing a Lunchbox

Forget the perfect family fantasy for a second—we all live in the real world where mornings are hectic, kids are choosy and lunch periods are short. This makes knowing how to pack a nutritious and attractive lunchbox—even on those less perfect days—an important part of a parent's box of tricks.
I have been packing lunchboxes for my kids for almost five years. When I became a full-time working/lunchbox-packing mom, I really had to start planning ahead and work on staying away from the "another PB&J" rut.
For novice lunch packers, keep in mind these three important tactics: strategy, balance and variety
Balance: The Anatomy of a Lunchbox
A balanced lunchbox consists of:

  • "Filling" food, such as something with starch and protein in it—a ham sandwich, tuna salad, pasta salad, chicken noodle soup
  • Fruit
  • A vegetable
  • A serving of yogurt or cheese on most days—especially for kids who do not like drinking milk
  • Something sweet to finish the meal with—it does not have to be in the lunchbox everyday and it does not have to be full of sugar; raisins or flavored yogurt fit the bill perfectly
  • Dip, such as hummus or ranch dressing to keep kids engaged

Strategy: Key to Success
Prepare what you can over the weekend. I typically spend about 45 minutes every Sunday boiling eggs, cutting veggies and fruit, and cooking rice or noodles.
Keep your fridge, freezer and pantry stocked with the lunch staples that will make putting a lunchbox together easy and fast amidst the morning havoc:
Keep these items in your fridge and freezer:

  • Fruit and berries
  • Pre-sliced cheese and string cheese
  • Frozen edamame, corn and peas
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Nut butter and jam
  • Pre-sliced deli meat or smoked salmon
  • Yogurt
  • Dips such as hummus, pesto or ranch dressing
  • Steamed or raw pre-cut vegetables
  • Vegetable soups frozen as individual servings that can be reheated and placed into insulated cups

 Keep these items in your pantry:

  • Whole grain sandwich bread, wraps or mini-bagels
  • Canned tuna
  • Whole grain pasta, noodles and brown rice
  • Whole grain crackers or tortilla chips
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Granola bars or small cookies to use as small treats (I usually divide one bar between two lunchboxes I make for my kids)
  • Nuts and dry fruit such as raisins and cranberries

Variety Is Important: Lunch Is No Exception
It is easy to get stuck in a rut and pack exactly the same thing every day. Parents may find it especially challenging to serve a variety of foods to a child who is picky or has a small appetite. Uneaten food in the lunchbox makes parents naturally worry that their child may be too hungry at school to learn well. But exposing kids to a variety of foods should not stop at lunchtime.
Here are a few tips on how to increase variety without scaring children away from their lunchboxes:

  1. Plan ahead and do not repeat the lunchbox entree more than two days a week. Involve children in planning their lunchbox menu and encourage them to come up with a different idea for an entree, fruit and vegetable components of a balanced lunch.
  2. Start with what your child already eats and build upon it. If your child ate a ham and cheese sandwich on Monday, make a ham and cheese wrap using a whole grain tortilla on Tuesday, or a ham and cheese quesadilla on Wednesday.
  3. Be creative with dinner leftovers. Soups definitely work great in lunchboxes if you invest in a good-quality insulated cup. Leftover rice or pasta can be used the next day in a quick salad with some vegetables and cheese or canned tuna. Leftover chicken or turkey can be recycled as a component of a fun "sandwich on a stick."
  4. Pack a very small serving of less liked or new foods. Just a couple of slices of cucumber or a few grape tomatoes are enough to provide the important exposure and facilitate food acceptance. I like the small compartment in the middle of these lunchboxes made by PlanetBox. Originally designed for a treat, it works great for tiny servings of fruit, vegetables or anything else that would intimidate your child in a bigger amount.

You can see many of my morning creations on this Pinterest board where I post pictures of the lunchboxes my kids take to school.

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Natalia Stasenko
Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, is a U.S.-credentialed pediatric dietitian based in London and New York and the owner of Feeding Bytes. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.