As the year ticks by, it’s easy to slip into Groundhog Day when it comes to school lunches.
Same old sandwich. A handful of baby carrots. Yawn.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s plenty that parents can do to make lunch more interesting—and more nutritious, Joanna Gritter, MA, RDN, a nutritionist at Corewell Health, said.
And while each lunch should ideally include something from each of the five essentials, changing up just a few items can make a big difference.
Make fruit appealing
This is often the easiest place to add variety, as most kids enjoy the natural sweetness of fruit.
“Cutting fruit up increases its appeal. Try cutting up that apple and tossing it with a little lemon juice in the container,” Gritter said. “Aim for a variety of colors over the week, with raspberries, blueberries and raisins.”
Applesauce and fruit cups make a nice change, too.
“Just look for those packed in their own juice or a light syrup,” she said.
Explore dairy options
Most schools provide milk or chocolate milk. And that’s great—until kids get bored with those items. Some children will prefer changing it up by using milk straws, which can add fun flavors.
If your kids don’t like milk at all, “throw in a cheese stick or small tubes of yogurt,” Gritter said. “You can freeze them so they’re mostly thawed by lunchtime, giving them a different texture that some kids like.”
Aim for veggie variety
If those baby carrots appeal to kids, that’s fine.
“But cucumbers are a good choice, too, as well as cherry tomatoes and sliced bell peppers,” Gritter said.
Adding a dip can make any veggie more inviting. She suggests hummus, low-fat ranch or a homemade mixture of Greek yogurt with ranch seasoning packets.
Pick your protein
Lunch meats and the classic peanut butter and jelly have huge fan clubs.
Peanut butter allergies, however, have opened many people up to the delights of sunflower and cashew butter. Gritter also likes the trendy granola butter sold by Oat Haus, which delivers a graham cracker taste.
But plenty of kids simply hate sandwiches.
“Consider a hard-boiled egg, a few cooked egg whites or a handful of cashews or almonds,” Gritter said.
Get your grains
Don’t be afraid to experiment with wraps, bagels and healthy crackers, which are all fine alternatives to sliced bread.
Sometimes, just cutting things differently can change the appeal. Gritter will sometimes roll cream cheese and berries up in a wrap and slice it in sections, “so it looks like sushi.”
Schools sometimes give kids access to microwaves, which can expand their food options.
“Or you can send soup or pasta in a good thermos and it will stay hot,” she said.
Gritter offered some additional tips:
A common mistake: Parents tend to think in adult-size portions, forgetting that kids typically eat less.
“So if we’re including fruits and vegetables, maybe it makes sense to send just a half sandwich, so they’ll have room for the other foods,” Gritter said.
An adult might consider a cup of grapes a reasonable portion.
“For kids, 10 are probably enough,” she said.
Let kids choose
“I use a checklist that has the food groups,” said Gritter, whose kids are ages 9, 7 and 3. “They get to pick their fruit and vegetable. Because they’re picking foods that are interesting to them, there’s a better chance they’ll eat it—and they’re learning about what makes a healthy meal.”
Don’t get in a rut
Kids tend to choose familiar foods, and parents are usually happy to oblige. And, because parents aren’t at school to see how much lunch their child is actually eating, it can feel risky to add new foods.
But Gritter says there’s a bigger risk: inadvertently encouraging kids to be close-minded about what they eat.
“Variety is important. It pushes kids outside of their comfort zone,” she said. “The more they’re exposed to new foods, the more they will learn to like them.”
Will there be some inevitable misses? Yes. And that’s a good thing.
“It’s important to try to throw some challenges in there,” Gritter said. “It could be once or twice a week or even once a month.”
Encourage an occasional school lunch
School nutrition programs are getting more inventive and healthy. If your child opts for the school lunch, rejoice—the pros are better at getting kids to venture outside their palate comfort zone.
About 60% of school kids in the U.S. eat lunches provided by their school. And research has shown those meals are generally healthier than the lunches the other 40% of students bring from home.
“There’s a lot of power in eating with peers,” Gritter said. “A child who would never try chicken stir-fry at home may happily eat it at school.”