How each parent defines a "better lunch" is different. For some, it might mean more healthful food choices (or even just a little weekly variety); for others, it might simply mean something that doesn't come back home at 3 p.m. Whether you're looking to get calories in, expand your kids' palates, or make lunch-making less boring for yourself, there's always room for new ideas.
We asked 10 moms to share their best tricks for packing better lunches — however they choose to define that. From silicone cupcake holders to bento boxes, we're sure you'll find something useful for your own daily routine.
1. We've recently started focusing on lowering our sodium intake quite a bit, and that has honestly been the best trick for cutting down on processed foods and generally unhealthy snacks. Now my goal is a protein, dairy, fruit, and a vegetable in their lunch. Instead of adding more processed carbohydrates and sugars, I tend to simply increase the number and variety of fruits and vegetables and protein instead. –Erica, physician, mom of 3
2. I use silicone cupcake holders to divide larger containers. They make it easy to offer more variety. –Kim, stay-at-home mom of 2
3. We have some set lunches that I know the girls like, such as a berry shake with a bagel, or a cheese/meat/crackers combo. We pack those at least once a week. We basically stick to a protein/carb/fruit/veggie plan, trying to make sure they have one of each in their lunches every day. We typically don't send a "treat" in the lunches, much to my daughters' disapproval, but this is one way we can keep things healthy. –Rachel, clinical social worker, mom of 2
4. The key is to let the kids feel in control. I let them pack their own lunch so I know they will eat it. We have a list to follow: main course, veggie, fruit, bar, crackers or breadsticks, extra protein. They can interpret these things any way they want. They ask for the things they like by writing it on a dry-erase board. If it's within reason, I buy it. Twice a year (first day of school and last day of school), they get Lunchables for fun. It's been a tradition since preschool and they remind me every year about it. –Karly, clinical psychologist, mom of 2
5. Bento box lunches! Fun presentation seems to magically make lunches disappear. But I don't do fancy cutouts and decorations! I bought a bento lunch box with three separate sealed compartments. I'll reheat rice or pasta and add a protein, plus some colorful fruit and maybe a cookie. It all disappears. Even sandwiches, which otherwise were considered off the menu, get eaten. –Jennifer, architect, mom of 2
6. I have a super-picky eater, so I focus my energy on a good breakfast and a good dinner. But we still need lunch. I'm a deal maker, since I can't be there to enforce lunch and I care most that my kiddo actually gets food into her stomach. She's super motivated to eat chips. So, our deal is, if you eat all your fresh fruit and half the sandwich, you can have your chips. If she has eaten the chips before eating the fruit then she loses the privilege of chips the next day. This is very hard for me to enforce because she eats so very little every day, so I give her a second chance to finish the fruit and sandwich when she gets home from school, as a snack. If she does, chips are eligible again the next day. We've only lost chip privileges a few times! –Leslie, management consultant, mom of 2
7. I use a Japanese-style lunch box with separate compartments, and try to make it colorful, with a lot of options. In Japan I bought a lot of little reusable toothpicks with cute character "heads" on them; sticking them into a strawberry or apple slice tends to make them more appealing. Both my kids like rice, and they protest when they get too many sandwiches in a row, so I will also often make Japanese-style rice balls with panda or cat "faces" made out of nori on them, and edamame or rolled-up slices of ham or turkey on the side for protein. –Kate, Japanese translator, mom of 2
8. My best trick is rotating foods (my kids get "icked" if I pack the same fruit/vegetable/protein for over a week) AND buying fresh, organic foods. The kids don't always understand that I spend my paycheck on quality organic foods, but they consistently "like" what I pack/cook much more with those ingredients versus lesser-quality stuff. No matter what financial state I have been in, I've always believed that the food we put in our bodies should be organic and high-quality. This is rooted in my own health issues and I see the difference with my kids' health as well. –Betsey, capital program manager, mom of 2
9. I don't have a trick. I've lucked out because our kiddo does like healthy foods. I can pack a full meat/cheese or PB&J sandwich, fruit, veggies, fruit leather, and a snack or two and it almost always comes back empty. I think for parents struggling, it's great to get your kids involved. Have them help make lunches, work together to make a shopping list, and/or take them to the store with you to pick out lunch stuff. It can also be helpful (if you're not too tired from working a full day and making dinner and all that) to make lunch the night before. This gives you a little bit more time in the mornings and if you do it early enough, you can work together with your child before bedtime. –Andrea, preschool teacher, mom of 1
10. Our daughter often doesn't eat much during the day. For this reason, I tend to give her nutrient-rich foods so that whatever she actually puts in her mouth has some nutritional value. Sometimes I just go for calories but I feel pretty dedicated to foods that offer a vitamin or two or a good protein punch. –Lisa, clinical psychologist, mom of 1