Lunch Club: Back-to-School Lunch Makeovers

Prepping school lunches every day can be hard work. I’ve personally just joined the lunch packing “club” as I’ve got two little ones heading off to school this year. Trying to strike a balance between finding foods that are healthy and that the kids will enjoy eating, all while taking into account restrictions on allergens (our school is nut-free) and packaging (everything must be litterless) requires patience, creativity and perhaps a sense of humour. If your child’s/children’s lunch is in need of a refresh this September, here are some fresh takes on traditional school lunches and snacks that are both healthy and delicious.

Homemade Pizza Pockets
A lunchbox staple, pizza is the ultimate kiddie food but it can be laden with fat and sodium. The solution? Make it at home with simple and fresh ingredients, and it instantly becomes a healthier version of itself. Better yet, this is an easy one for children of all ages to help prepare. Slice open a whole wheat pita pocket, and spread the inside evenly with a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce. Fill with sliced mozzarella/bocconcini balls (approximately 6-8 of them), and then a handful of chopped vegetables – current favourites in our house include broccoli, zucchini and red peppers. Place the pita in an oven pre-heated to 400°F and bake until the cheese begins to bubble, about 7-8 minutes. Allow pizza to cool before packing in the lunch box (note: this can be made the night before, and served cold the next day).

While pizza isn’t without its nutritional shortcomings (tomato sauce, cheese and toppings like pepperoni tend to be high in sodium), it can easily get a nutritional makeover. This recipe uses bocconcini, a fresh mozzarella cheese that is naturally low in sodium (about 3 milligrams per 30 gram piece) and a good source of protein (approximately 5 grams per 30 gram piece). And filling the pizza pocket with a variety of vegetables rather than processed meats also keeps the sodium content down while providing a good source of fibre, vitamin A and vitamin C.

Rainbow Salads
I struggle the most with getting my kids to eat the vegetables I pack with their lunch. Even when all of the other containers come home empty (a mom’s dream!), I often find I’m tossing out dry and wilted vegetables from their lunch box at the end of each day. One trick for combatting the “baby carrot blues” is to mix fruit and vegetables together in a variety of ways, and the beautiful display of colours seems to get them excited about eating. Some good options to try: cucumber slices with halved red grapes, orange segments with diced celery, and apple slices with carrot coins. You can get even more creative by using a variety of kitchen gadgets such as cookie cutters or a spiralizer to make fruit and vegetables in all different shapes and sizes.

Choose deep orange and dark green fruits and vegetables to get a higher nutritional bang for your buck. Various natural compounds in plant foods – including the pigments that impart deep red, orange, yellow and green colours to fruits and vegetables - have powerful antioxidant properties that are important for overall good health. Think of the rich colours you see when choosing tomatoes, red pepper, carrots and cantaloupe, or the deep green colour of broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts. Encourage your child to eat whole fruits and vegetables rather than drinking juice, as they’ll provide more fibre and significantly less sugar when consumed in their natural state.

Upgraded Turkey Sandwich
If you’ve got a child who’s not a fan of same-old, same-old sandwiches every day, it’s time to get a little creative in the kitchen. Instead of the typical sandwich featuring white bread, deli turkey slices, mayonnaise and iceberg lettuce, you can make a few easy changes to boost the taste and nutritional content. For starters, swap the white bread for a higher-fibre option like a whole grain pita or whole wheat tortilla wrap – they’re just more fun to eat! Use a tasty spread like hummus or honey mustard in place of mayonnaise, and then fill with a variety of colourful vegetables. Some good options to start with are arugula, shredded carrots, diced cucumber, bell peppers and tomatoes, although anything that adds some extra “crunch” is sure to appeal.

Sandwiches are a lunch staple for a reason. They’re easy to pack, but they’re also an opportunity to provide your child with good nutrition in every bite. One key nutrient provided by a sandwich is fibre, which is important for digestive health and also for keeping smaller tummies feeling full. Whenever possible, swap white bread, bagels or pitas for their whole grain/multigrain counterparts and you’ll significantly increase the fibre content. Other good options include rye, pumpernickel, sourdough or sprouted grain breads. Adding vegetables boosts the fibre too!

Yogurt Banana Splits
I’ve had great success packing this snack for my children, which is a twist on a more traditional indulgent dessert. Peel a banana and slice in half lengthwise. Top with a few spoonfuls of plain or vanilla yogurt (for older children, you can pack the yogurt separately and let them add it themselves). Fill a separate container with a variety of healthy toppings, which can be sprinkled on top just before eating – my kids’ favourite combo is granola, raisins and fresh berries, although the options are pretty endless! Sometimes I sneak in a few mini chocolate chips to surprise them.

Bananas are a good source of dietary fibre (3 grams in each), potassium, manganese, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. The yogurt in this snack provides a source of bone-building calcium (especially important for kids who don’t drink much milk) and protein, which is needed for overall healthy growth and development. It also helps to keep young tummies feeling full.