Healthy Lunch Ideas For Kids: Pediatricians Share What They Pack – TODAY

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Whether your kids are off to school or camp for the day, they’ll need a nutritious, filling and — hopefully — fun lunch to keep them going. But it can be a challenge to tick all those boxes day after day, pediatricians tell TODAY.com.

For some parents, like Dr. Shelly Vaziri Flais, life-threatening food allergies make packing lunches a necessity. Two of her four children have severe food allergies, “so we always packed (lunches). And it was a team effort,” says Flais, a Chicago-based pediatrician and editor-in-chief of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Caring For Your School-Age Child.”

As early as first and second grade, her kids had a voice in what they got for lunch, and she encouraged them to try a variety of foods.

“Every kid is different in that respect,” Flais tells TODAY.com. “And it’s my job as a pediatrician to say, well, let’s keep trying those other foods because, as your kids grow their taste buds change. If there’s something they previously didn’t enjoy, perhaps they do now.” 

When packing lunches for her kids, Flais and other experts TODAY.com spoke to have a bit of a formula for healthy, easy-to-grab items that keep children interested and energized. But they also recommend switching lunches up now and then — and they don’t mind sneaking in a small treat.

What do pediatricians pack their kids for lunch?

A protein-packed main

“I always packed one main item, and this typically was some kind of a protein source,” Dr. Christina Johns, senior medical advisor for PM Pediatrics, tells TODAY.com.

Generally, she’s found that her two kids were more likely to actually eat lunch — and one that’s nutritious — if she packs it herself. So, she always starts with a filling, protein-packed food, like a turkey and cheddar sandwich or leftover pieces of grilled chicken from dinner.

Sandwiches are also a popular option for Dr. Matthew Wilber, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Pediatrics, who has three daughters. His youngest, a 15-year-old, “has been grooving on egg salad lately,” Wilber tells TODAY.com. “She takes like little container of egg salad and will spread it on half a bagel.”

Wilber cautions against giving kids processed deli meats too frequently as they’ve been linked to future cancers, particularly colorectal cancer. “I don’t know if I’d make it a forbidden food,” he says, “but I definitely try to make it (something we eat) sparingly.”

However, sandwiches don’t work for every family. “Unfortunately, my kids don’t like sandwiches,” Dr. Katie Lockwood, pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells TODAY.com.

While her son, 13, gets lunch at school, Lockwood needs to get a little creative when making lunch for her 10-year-old daughter. Thankfully, she doesn’t mind eating the same thing most days, which is centered around a filling Greek yogurt.

The yogurt is typically flavored or contains fruit, but Lockwood tries to steer towards options with less than 10 grams of added sugar. She avoids yogurts that come with a lot of toppings, which tend to be sugary cookie pieces or sprinkles.

Protein ideas:

  • Sandwiches made with sliced turkey, ham, chicken or egg salad
  • Greek yogurt
  • Cheese sticks or cubes

Fresh fruit and veggies

“I’m really big on produce,” Flais says, referencing the MyPlate guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s a simple way for young kids to understand what a healthy meal should look like. And really, half the plate should be fresh fruits and vegetables.” 

Not only does that help kids get the essential vitamins and minerals they need, but it also provides gut-healthy fiber. “I see a lot of kids with tummy upset and digestive issues,” Flais says, and fresh fruits and veggies are a great way to get more fiber.

Grapes were a common lunch item for Johns’ kids. However, as a pediatric emergency physician, “there was no way my 6-year-old was getting whole grapes and was going to choke on one of those things,” she laughs. “Probably until my poor kids were 10, they had cut grapes.”

Portable fruits — like apples, oranges and easy-to-peel mandarins — are popular fruit choices for Wilber’s family.

That said, it’s OK to use convenience packs of fresh fruit that are all cut up and ready to go, Flais says. In particular, her family enjoys cups of pre-cut mango as well as fresh berries.

When it comes to veggies, Lockwood often sends her daughter to school with sliced bell pepper, cucumber, celery or carrot sticks. “They’re all veggies that are pretty easy to quickly cut up and throw into a lunchbox,” she says, “and they keep pretty well.”

Fruit and vegetable ideas:

  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Mandarins
  • Grapes
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Sliced bell pepper
  • Carrot sticks
  • Celery sticks
  • Cucumber sticks

Filling, tasty dips with crunchy snacks

Dips or spreads can be a great way to get a little more healthy, filling fat and protein into your child’s meal — and they can be a tasty accompaniment to vegetables.

For instance, Lockwood’s daughter often eats hummus with her veggie sticks or with pretzels at lunch. Peanut butter and guacamole are other “little ways that you can sneak in protein and help make the veggies more exciting,” she says.

Single-serve packs of guacamole are a favorite for Wilber’s daughters, who like to dip celery and carrot sticks or chips, he says.

Dip and snack ideas:

  • Peanut butter
  • Guacamole
  • Hummus
  • Crackers
  • Pretzels
  • Cheese puffs

A small treat

Yes, it’s OK for kids to have a dessert with their lunch. But that might look different for each child, the experts say.

“I’m a big fan of fruit as dessert,” Flais says, adding that raspberries are her daughter’s “ultimate favorite.” She’ll also pack some chocolate-covered raisins, cranberries or pretzels.

On the other hand, Johns, who has a high school sophomore and college freshman, “was always fairly liberal about this kind of thing,” she says. She would often pack homemade treats, like cookies or banana bread. “But if they wanted a Ho Ho, they can have a Ho Ho in there,” Johns adds. “That’s not the hill I’m going to die on.”

While Lockwood generally tries to limit the sugar in her daughter’s lunches, “I do pack some surprises, just to keep it novel and exciting,” she says. After Halloween, for instance, she might pack some Hershey’s kisses, or she might include something she saw at the store and thought her daughter would like.

Similarly, Wilber’s daughters will often get a square of chocolate in their lunches.

Johns believes “in moderation,” she explains, “and a few treats don’t hurt anybody if you’re mindful about it.”

Dessert ideas:

  • Fruit
  • Chocolate square
  • Chocolate-covered raisins or berries
  • Small candy, like Hershey’s kisses or a mini candy bar

And a sweet note

Don’t underestimate the power of a sweet note in your child’s lunch to let them know you love them. “When they’re little, they appreciate a little notes in their lunchbox,” Lockwood says, which is another way to vary the day and give them a sweet surprise.

Wilber agrees: “My girls loved it when my wife would write them a little note to put in their lunch,” he says, adding that it put them in a state of mind where they were happy and excited to eat.

What do pediatricians avoid giving their kids for lunch?

The experts TODAY.com spoke to don’t like to completely rule out or restrict too heavily any food that their kids enjoy. That can leave children feeling deprived, leading them to overeat later or have a wandering eye at lunchtime.

But there are some items the pediatricians specifically don’t give their kids for lunch or give them more rarely as a treat.

Sugary or caffeinated drinks

Kids are naturally drawn to sweetened, brightly-colored drinks like soda and energy drinks. But the experts TODAY.com spoke to all agree: It’s best to stick to water.

“One of the more common challenges I see in the office is getting kids to drink water throughout the day,” Wilber says, so water is the ideal beverage to have along with lunch.

Children “really shouldn’t be doing caffeine,” Flais says, and it’s not always easy to tell if a healthy-looking drink has caffeine in it.

Johns was also a “no-soda gal,” she says, and generally her kids always drank from refillable water bottles throughout the school day. But she would allow her kids to each take a Gatorade or Powerade to school with them once a week on a “treat day.”

For Lockwood, water is always the first choice, but regular milk can be a good option, too. Juice and other sugary beverages are saved for special occasions, like birthday parties.

Protein bars

If the packaging says it contains a lot of protein, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s healthy.

Despite that marketing, “little kids don’t need those protein bars,” Flais says. “I think everyone’s getting confused.” Even high schoolers don’t need to resort to supplements like those, she says. Granola bars, however, are generally fine.

Kids should look forward to lunch, but it doesn’t have to be perfect

Some of the pediatricians spoke about the power of aesthetically pleasing lunches — and looking to social media pages for inspiration.

For Flais’ daughter, who is in high school, putting together her own bento box is a highlight. “She’ll prep it the night before and you can even see her pride,” Flais says. “She’s like, I’m already to go. Tomorrow might be a disaster, but I’m going to have a good lunch.”

Letting children pick out their own lunchbox can be a way to give them some autonomy and ownership in the process, Johns says, “and that’s a win.”

When it comes to lunchboxes, “it’s all about the colors and the look and the organization, which is which is fun,” Wilber says.

On the other hand, some experts were concerned that the picture-perfect lunches you might encounter on social media set an impossible standard for parents to compare themselves against.

“It’s very hard as a parent, sometimes, to look at the beautiful bento boxes and feel like I need to be making this gourmet snack tray of healthy options for my kid,” Lockwood says.

It’s a challenge to make lunch every day and it’s especially hard when your kid is a picky eater, she says. “It doesn’t need to look like it can be posted on social media to be healthy and to meet their nutritional needs for the day.”

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