elementary school age girls with lunch bags

Beating the Brown Bagging Blues

By Corey Radman

With short lunch periods and multiple food allergies, brown bag lunches are the way to go for many school kids. But cold lunch doesn’t have to be bland sandwiches on repeat. Youth Clinic registered dietitian Martha Gooldy Garcia has the secret for healthy, appealing lunch box options your kids will actually eat!

Garcia says the first rule is to involve your child. Get their input on what they’re enjoying (or not) and rotate in new ideas to make lunch more appealing. Some kids do sushi bites with seaweed strips, rice, and smoked salmon or tuna. Or, carry the flavor of their favorite dinner foods into lunch. Spaghetti becomes a mini pita filled with sauce, mozzarella, and leftover rotisserie chicken. Include a fun ice pack in their bag to keep cold foods cold until lunchtime. “Just add a couple of fresh ideas every few weeks,” Garcia says. “Then the kids will be more excited to eat in that 20 minutes versus racing off to playground time.”

When kids start to pack their own lunches, help them balance meals by following the USDA’s MyPlate food groups recommendation of fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. Garcia says variability is fine. “I might not always have dairy because dairy is a protein too, but every lunch should have a fruit and a veggie in addition to the main dish and a little side. A lot of times we’re pretty good on fruits, but potato chips and granola bars often take the place of veggies.”

The solution? Preparation. “Sit down together with your kiddo on Sunday and chop veggies.” By prepping individual containers of carrots, bell peppers, or cucumbers, those veggie servings are just as quick and easy to grab as a bag of chips—plus you’re skipping all that single-use packaging from wrappers. Because veggies start to degrade after two or three days in the fridge, prep twice a week for 15 minutes, and your vegetable woes are suddenly solved.

If plain bell pepper slices don’t tempt your child, maybe dipping veggies in single-servings of guacamole, hummus, or peanut butter will motivate them. Yes, there may be more plastic and more cost, or take more time if you portion out the dips yourself. But as Garcia says, “If that helps them eat their veggies, it’s absolutely worth it to me.”

Lunch ideas: