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Standard lunchtime options for kids often fall short on metabolic benefits. Packed-lunch staples usually involve two pieces of bread, and other lunch menu items like pizza, chicken nuggets, and mac and cheese are processed foods loaded with added sugar, refined grains, and unrecognizable ingredients. Regular consumption of these convenient foods can impair brain function and development and increase the risk of obesity and fatty liver disease.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A metabolic approach to the midday meal sets the stage for well-fed students who are better learners and less likely to develop long-term health complications. Improving your child’s menu can be simple with the right strategy. The key is to balance fiber-filled carbohydrates with protein, healthy fat, and veggies.
Have a picky eater on your hands? Don’t give up. Research suggests that repeated exposure to new foods is vital to food acceptance in infants and toddlers. A recent study also suggests that when young kids are licking, smelling, or even spitting out foods, this “sensory exploration” is, in fact, a way of determining that novel foods are safe (versus, say, outright refusal of the food). The study found that as these behaviors decrease with age, their willingness to eat new foods increases. In short, they’ve learned the lesson that new foods are okay, a finding echoed in other research.
Below are easy-to-make upgrades to familiar kids’ lunches that help children consume more healthy nutrients and fewer processed foods.
Swap: Turkey Sandwich → Turkey Avocado Roll Bento
Not only is a turkey sandwich uninspiring, often, but there’s also far more bread than meat. That imbalance can result in a blood sugar and energy spike, followed by a rapid crash in both. Lose the grains and simply roll up turkey with creamy avocado or cheese. This low-carb option is loaded with filling protein and healthy fat. Round out the meal with some veggies, dip, and nut-based crackers.
- 4-6 slices turkey breast
- 1/2 avocado, sliced
- Sliced cucumber
- Baby carrots
- 10 almond flour crackers (Hu Kitchen brand)
- 2 tablespoons hummus
Place 2 slices of turkey on top of each other. Top with 2 pieces of avocado and roll to form a “wrap” to contain the avocado inside the turkey slices. Repeat to make 2-3 wraps, depending on your child’s needs. Serve with veggies, crackers, and hummus. Makes 1 kid-size serving
Swap: Pizza → Pizza Pasta Salad
Traditional packaged pizza has blood-sugar-spiking white flour crust, often sugar-laden sauce, and heavily processed cheese. Instead, capture similar flavors with protein- and fiber-packed legume pasta, satisfying turkey sausage, fresh mozzarella, and loads of veggies. Plus, the red wine vinegar can help blunt any blood sugar spike. (If your child is a pepperoni pizza fan, feel free to use sliced turkey pepperoni instead of sausage. This one is also simple to make plant-based: just skip the meat or use a meat substitute.) This pasta can be prepared in advance and incorporate other vegetables, such as sautéed mushrooms and bell pepper.
- 1 8-ounce box chickpea or lentil penne or rotini
- 1/2 pound turkey sausage
- 6 ounces bocconcini, roughly chopped
- 1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered
- 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, sliced (optional)
- 1 cup fresh basil, slivered
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
In a large pot of simmering salted water, prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain, rinse well, and return to pot.
Remove sausage from casing and heat in a skillet over medium heat, crumbling sausage as it cooks.
Add sausage, bocconcini, tomatoes, olives (if used), and basil to pasta. Whisk together oil, vinegar, oregano, and black pepper. Toss with pasta mixture. Makes 4 kid-size servings
Swap: Chicken Fingers and Fries → Chicken Tenders with Crunchy Veggies and Creamy Ranch Dip
Why hide lean chicken under breading and sugary ketchup? Instead, flavor strips of chicken breast with tasty spices and bake. (Note: If Cajun seasoning is too spicy for their mouth, use Italian seasoning.) Then, in place of starchy fries (which have few nutrients), offer raw vegetables and homemade “ranch” dip. The fats from the Greek yogurt aid in absorbing the vegetables’ fat-soluble vitamins (you can also use a non-dairy yogurt if you prefer to avoid dairy).
- 1/2 pound chicken tenders
- 2 teaspoon olive oil or avocado oil
- 1 teaspoon Cajun or Creole seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped dill
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 red bell pepper, sliced
- 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
- 2 cups baby carrots
- 2 cups almond flour crackers (Hu Kitchen brand)
To make chicken tenders, preheat the oven to 375°F. Toss together chicken, oil, Cajun seasoning, salt, and black pepper. Place on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 20 minutes or until the internal temperature of the largest tender is 165°F. If making for lunch meal prep, let cool completely before storing in an air-tight container and placing in the refrigerator.
To make the dip, in a bowl, whisk together all ingredients.
Divide chicken, dip, veggies, and crackers among compartments of bento-style lunch boxes. Makes 4 kid-size servings
Swap: Grilled Cheese → Apple Cheddar Grilled Cheese
Foods to replace: ultra-processed cheese slices, refined flour bread, and high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened ketchup. For this “grilled cheese,” start with a block of full-fat cheese to avoid added fillers found in many shredded blends. Plus, new research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed no significant differences between the risk for excessive weight gain or cardiometabolic diseases in children when fed full-fat dairy products or low-fat dairy. Put the cheese on a grain-free tortilla. Top with sliced apples, leafy greens, and some chopped walnuts for a crunchy hit of omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with healthy metabolic profiles. Serve with no-sugar ketchup, such as Primal Kitchen, or the homemade version below, which can be prepped up to two weeks in advance.
- 1 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 1/2 cup jarred roasted red pepper, drained
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 grain-free tortillas (Siete brand)
- 1 apple, thinly sliced
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
- 1 cup baby spinach
Ideally, make ketchup a day or two in advance to allow the flavor to deepen. Place sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl, cover with 1 1/2 cups boiling water, and let soak for 30 minutes until soft. Place tomatoes, 1/2 cup soaking liquid, and remaining ingredients in a blender and blend into a smooth paste. If needed, add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached. Keep refrigerated in a sealed container for up to two weeks.
To make grilled cheese, melt butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Top half of each tortilla with an equal amount of apple slices, cheese, walnuts, and spinach. Fold tortillas over. Heat until tortillas are golden and crispy on both sides and cheese is melted, about 3 minutes per side. Makes 2 kid-size servings