Last year, my husband and I sent our son to school for the first time. We had homeschooled him for several years, and he decided that he wanted to try a private school in the next town over. I packed his lunch dutifully every evening, but as my child has grown older he has taken the initiative, investing in his own health, his own preferences and his own interests. Me? I figure my job is to support that as much as possible. I give him the building blocks, and he grows from there.
Our guidelines give him a system from which he works, ensuring that he has a wholesome and well-balanced meal with him each day.
His responsibility extends not only to what he packs into his lunchbox, but how he packs it, and how he minimizes waste. We have frank conversations in our home about real food, wellness, waste and the small, easy actions we can take daily. From learning to gauge appetite based on his activities during the day to using reusable materials, we all take small steps that add up to big change.
The average family will go through about five hundred plastic baggies packing lunch throughout the year, and that adds up not only in the landfills, but on the budget too.
The 5 Healthy Foods We Always Pack
Animal foods provide protein, healthy fats, and micronutrients that are not otherwise found in abundance, or at all, in plant foods like vitamin B12, retinol and vitamin D. Owing to their macronutrient profile, which includes protein and fat, animal foods are also satiating and provide long-lasting energy that keeps kids, and grownups, fueled until their next meal.
Grains, Beans, Nuts and Seeds
Grains, beans, nuts and seeds can provide starches and bulk for lunch. Keep in mind that many schools have moved to a nut- and peanut-free policy due to the increasing incidence of food allergies and the unique risk that nuts and peanuts pose, so if your school is a nut-free zone, you can emphasize grains, beans and seeds. Tahini, which is made from sesame seeds, pumpkin seed butter and sunflower seed butter all make good alternatives to peanut butter.
Favorites: walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, pepitas, homemade nut butters, sprouted hummus, sprouted grain bread and , store bought crackers or homemade whole-grain yogurt and dill crackers, as well as beans added to soups and chili.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables provide carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as bulk to round out his lunchbox. When we visit the farmers market or farm stands around our home, I give my son a budget and he can pick a few fruits or vegetables that are reserved for his lunches. When we get home, we pack them away in an airtight container and set them on his shelf in the fridge.
Favorites: cherry tomatoes, salad turnips, cucumbers, carrot sticks, basil on sandwiches, grapes, berries, apples, dried fruit and just about anything that’s fresh and in season.
Fat is critical to several biological functions (read more here). It helps us to feel full and satisfied, and it helps us to absorb the fat-soluble nutrients in our foods like vitamins A, D, E and K as well as many antioxidants including beta carotene. It’s a concentrated source of calories, so your kiddo doesn’t need much, but he or she does need some which is why we tend to opt for condiment-sized portions of minimally processed fats.
Favorites: homemade olive oil mayonnaise, full-fat cheese, avocados, olive or avocado oil in salad dressing, olive oil in homemade hummus, butter spread thinly on sandwiches, as well as fats and oils used in cooking soups and stews that we pack in thermoses.
We always aim for something fermented, too. Fermented foods are rich in vitamins, particularly B vitamins, food enzymes and beneficial bacteria. They offer a host of benefits ranging from immune system support, reduced risk of cancer, and they’re typically anti-inflammatory as well. We often include small portions of fermented vegetables, homemade fermented pickles or a homemade fermented soda or tonic kept snug in a thermos or water bottle. Fermented foods, like kefir, can form the base of condiments like homemade ranch dressing, too, which many children tend to enjoy.
Favorites: sour pickles, plain sauerkraut, jalapeno garlic sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled carrot sticks, yogurt, creme fraiche and sour cream, kefir, raspberry ginger soda, water kefir, and apple cinnamon kombucha.
The average kid’s lunch creates a whopping sixty-seven pounds of waste each year – uneaten food, plastic baggies, lunch bags, and disposable cutlery. We aim to reduce waste in our kitchen by serving only the amount of food he’ll eat, and by using reusable lunch gear that he cleans out and washes upon his return home.
This large cinco bento box has five sections, one for each of the food groups above which makes packing lunch super easy. Icepacks keep lunches cold until it’s time to eat, especially when packed in a lunchbox that’s designed to keep cold foods cold and warm foods warm. I also send him to school with a bottle of filtered water to drink throughout the day (read more about why we filter our water here), as well as a kanteen like this one full of herbal tea or a fermented drink like kombucha to enjoy at lunch time.