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The Great Health Lunch Debacle: Upgrading School Lunches without Breaking the Bank

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If you’re anything like me, the idea of putting together a school lunch for my kids that won’t break the bank (or my schedule!) but will offer the nutrition they need and the flavors they enjoy, is enough to put me on the therapist’s couch.

But I’ve begun to find some tricks that save my sanity and some food swaps that the kids like without loading them down with sugar. As we enter the final push of the school year, I’ve included just a of my favorite “tricks” for lunch time.

  1. Skip the bread

When I was a kid, 90% of my school lunches were sandwiches and for a long time I got stuck on sandwiches being what lunches look like. But it’s time to get out of that mindset. Most breads are pretty processed, meaning they’ve lost a lot of their fiber and are made up of mostly simple carbohydrates that get turned into glucose (blood sugar) far too quickly. This means they get stored as fat. 

Lunch meats like turkey, ham and salami (preferably without nitrates, I like the Applegate brand) are great but don’t necessarily need the bread. Wrap them around cucumbers or carrots, roll them up with cheese or cut them up and add them to a small salad with cherry tomatoes, yum!

Nut butters too don’t have to have bread to make them a lunch. Spread them on apple slices, celery or a minimally processed cracker (I love Marys Gone Crackers). Even throw them into a smoothie that will travel well in a thermos.

Play around with bread-free lunch “staples” and you might just find that the slices go un-missed.

  1. Leftovers

Leftovers are a twofer. You can reduce the amount of food thrown out and you can get your kids to eat dinner foods that they enjoyed the first time. Pastas, soups and burgers all make great leftovers but really the sky’s the limit. Even leftover breakfast items like pancakes and frittatas do well as lunch the next day.

Some foods may require the extra forethought to make sure they serve well cold. But heating them up and placing them in containers that will help it retain the heat should do the trick.

  1. The Fewer Ingredients the Better

It may sound obvious but it still holds true: the more the ingredients in a food, the more processed it usually is.

I get that not everyone has the time to make all their food from scratch. That’s why I do suggest putting aside a little extra time when you go the grocery store to check out the labels of foods you’re considering for the lunchbox. You won’t have to put in the time each time you shop. But if you commit some extra time the next time you go, you will find some go-tos for future trips.

As a general rule, try to find foods that contain less than 10 ingredients. This can be hard and you may realize that foods that you’ve been buying for years don’t fit the bill anymore. But you may also discover some new foods that you love.

  1. Experiment with Swapping
  • Instead of granola or protein bars that can be high in sugar, try hard-boiled eggs, beef or turkey jerky (check the label as some can be high in sugar and salt), organic edamame, or homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds and some unsweetened dried fruit.
  • Instead of chips that are often fried in unhealthy fats, try baby carrots or celery with hummus or guacamole (the Hope Hummus and Wholly Guacamole Minis are perfect for lunches!), or unsweetened plantain or apple chips.
  • Instead of juice, which is high in sugar, try coconut water, carbonated water or water infused with fruit. Or, you know, just water!

And While You’re At It….

If you’d like to upgrade your child’s lunch box from yucky plastic to quality stainless steel (these babies never wear out!), I use and recommend both Lunch Bots and Planet Box lunch boxes. The boys love all the compartments of the Planet Box and it sparks creativity on my part too!

Let me know if you try any of these ideas, what works and what doesn’t! Any other lunch ideas you’ve found work for your kids? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Feel overwhelmed?

I love love love doing grocery store tours, let me know if you’d like me to join you on your next trip! 🙂

 Katie Garces is a Nurse Practitioner and Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner at Green Plate Kate. A foodie at heart, Katie incorporates a real-food philosophy in her nutrition coaching but loves diving deeper with her clients to round out mind/body wellness including personal development, mindful-living and even spirituality. You can find foodie pics and inspo on Instagram, recipes on Pinterest, health and wellness on Facebook.

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