This Is the Secret to Packing a Better Lunch Your Kids Will Actually Eat

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Snacking has taken over the way we eat and, given our propensity for unrelenting schedules and processed foods, this is a mostly bad thing. But I found one way that snacking can serve the greater good.

And by greater good, I mean us parents who have the tedious job of packing (literally) hundreds of school lunches year after school year.

I’m not a huge snacker myself. For me, it’s all about three meals a day, each with a fresh, simple, perhaps even old-school composition: lots of veggies, some protein, and healthy carbs and grains. The same goes for school lunch.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

I’ve gone on record singing the praises of my favorite five-compartment lunch box because it helps me keep things balanced. Everything has a clear place: the protein main, a fruit, a vegetable, a snack, and a sweet little bite in the middle. But when you pack 175 school lunches in one academic year, this old-school approach to balance gets boring — for everyone.

To keep things interesting, I’ve decided to turn my kids’ favorite snacks into a balanced lunch by pairing them together thoughtfully. It turns out that I can still hit the important marks – protein, fruit, vegetable, and whole-food carbs for energy — while serving up snack foods.

Bonus: Snacks don’t end up in the garbage nearly as frequently as the same-ol’ soggy sandwich.

The key is to make sure the snacks come together to give your kids everything they need to make it through their busy days.

The key is to make sure the snacks come together to give your kids everything they need to make it through their busy days. It’s easier than ever to find high-protein snacks that go beyond peanut butter (no longer allowed in many schools) and cheese; while both are still on the table for us, I also look to Greek-style yogurt, chips made with beans, bean and yogurt dips, and chia seeds to serve up a protein fix.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Carbs are easy to come by with snack foods, but you can go beyond pretzels by making both sweet and savory muffins packed with fruits, vegetables, and yes, more protein (think: peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese muffins!). And crackers? Instead of just handing over a sleeve, use them as a canvas to pile on nutrient-dense ingredients from avocado with mango to ricotta with honey. Hey, it’s on a cracker, so it still feels like a snack!

I’ve found some unexpected health benefits that come from this approach, too. First off, my kids understand and accept that the snacks we use to make lunch need to be healthier than, oh, say, cheese puffs. As a result, we’ve expanded our snack repertoire in a healthy way that we might not have otherwise. And once we did that, I found that some of our healthier lunch-snack items were being chosen at proper snack times when cheese puffs would be totally okay.

In other words, my kids are choosing more healthy snacks more frequently. Another major bonus.

Also, while packing snacks isn’t actually easier than packing an old-fashioned lunch, it somehow feels easier. And I’ll take that; my kids will too. They are much more likely to happily pack their own lunch when it’s a snacks-for-lunch day. I just keep an eye on those cheese puffs.