Thinking outside the sandwich and wrap realm, bento boxes are easy to put together, a great way to involve your kids and can help categorize foods by nutrients, to make sure your kids are offered adequate nourishment to ace their way through the day!
Kids’ appetites and palates will fluctuate, so try your best to continue offering a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Don’t worry if items, dare I say it – vegetables, make their way home. If there is a particular food group your child doesn’t care for, that’s just an area to work on together to brainstorm alternatives, but this way you are still offering good quality options.
Here are the nutrients/food groups to make sure to include each day, as well as my favorite options, with their own grades listed!
Water is really all that’s needed or milk if you’re not including a low-fat dairy option elsewhere in the lunch box. Milk alternatives can be options as well for those with intolerances to dairy such as unsweetened nut or seed milks (cashew, almond, flax) or plain soy milk. The goal with any beverage is to keep the added sugars as minimal as possible. For those with a flavor preference in their drinks, occasional Honest Kids or Capri Sun Roaring Waters are better options compared to higher sugar teas, sodas, sports drinks and even juices.
(A+) Water, Fairlife Milk (50% more protein than traditional cow’s milk), Ripple (protein rich nut milk)
(B+) Honest Kids Juice Drink– It is mostly water and sweetened only with fruit juice.
(B) Capri Sun Roaring Waters– Water is the first ingredient followed by sugar and stevia.
All A+ Options:
Siggi’s or Chobani Yogurt Tubes– I recommend strained or Greek yogurt that has less added sugar (5-6 grams total sugar) than other brands, with the benefit of more protein than traditional yogurt. It also provides a source of potassium and calcium, which are vital for kids growing bones and muscles.
Cheese– It is a good source of calcium with protein and is also a great finger food. Cube up 2% varieties for older kids, use full fat for younger tikes or pack up a string cheese.
Eggs– Eggs provide essential nutrients like choline, antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin A, especially in the yolk! A good option would be hard boiled eggs with the yolk or egg muffins, which can be eaten cold. Sneak in some veggies like broccoli and cheddar, peppers and feta or mushrooms and swiss for fun and flavorful combinations.
SunButter– SunButter is an allergy-friendly, great alternative to nut butters. Sunflower seed butter can be used as a dip for fruit or spread on whole grain crackers and bread.
Chicken, Ham or Turkey– These leaner protein options provide filling and nourishing protein and can go beyond sliced (higher sodium) deli meat. Think about shredded chicken turned into chicken salad or you can use tuna for tuna salad. Both make great dip and spread options for crackers or veggies that can be included in the box as well.
It’s best to pick 100% whole grains when you can. They provide B vitamins along with fiber, vitamin E, antioxidants and minerals that are missing with “white” or enriched grains.
(A+) Van’s Say Cheese crackers*– These are whole grain cheese crackers that are great nutrient-rich alternatives to Cheez-Its.
(A+) Beanfields*– The beans in these chips offer more protein and fiber than other options. Children may enjoy dipping these into their yogurt.
(A) Beanitos*– This choice isn’t an A+ option because these are a mix of regular, not brown, rice. It is still a great option, especially the varieties that resemble Doritos and Cheese Puffs, but are much healthier. Thanks to the beans, these also have the fiber and protein benefits.
(A-) Sun Chips– These are a great, whole grain, kid-friendly option.
(*also gluten free options)
I’d love it if all kids would munch on fresh fruits (apples, oranges, pears, berries, etc.) but not all will. If not, try sending these kid-friendly, A+ options.
Dried fruit– Dried fruit can contain added sugar, especially dried cranberries because of their tartness. But raisins, prunes or apricots make great unsweetened options. Simply Balanced freeze dried fruit slices are simply that, dried fruit without any added sweeteners or sugar but are also crunchy like chips.
Purees like applesauce– You can purchase in pouch or cup form. It is also available with other fruits added or flavors like cinnamon. These work well for variety and sneaking in those extra nutrients! Make sure you are getting unsweetened varieties.
Strips and twists by Simply Balanced– These contain only fruit purees and juices, no added sugars such as corn syrups, tapioca syrup, cane syrup, etc., which are in most varieties of “fruit” snacks. You’ll need to read the ingredients to double check you’re not being misled by marketing on the sugar-laden ones.
Of course, veggies of any sort will work here (grape tomatoes, sliced peppers, baby carrots, sliced mini cucumbers), but also consider some baked or dehydrated veggies as options, especially for the pickier kids that tend to let these come home with their lunch box. I prefer the taste of homemade veggie “chips”, but if you need the ease of store bought, consider these A+ varieties.
Rhythm Foods Beet Chips – These are made from dehydrated beets.
Brad’s or Rhythm Foods Kale Chips– It contains dehydrated kale.
Be wary of the veggie sticks that are mostly flours that contain mostly potato, rice flours or other starches with powdered veggies mostly for color.
Treats may not be necessary, especially if kids are eating these as an after-school snack or after dinner, but here are some better options that are also tasty.
(A) Larabar minis– These are dessert size options that contain a few simple ingredients (like dates and nuts) without any added sugars.
(B) Kashi Cookies or Barbara’s Snackimals oatmeal cookies– These animal crackers are 100% whole grains and are a fiber-rich, lower sugar option (with 7-8 grams of sugar – 5 grams or less is better) compared to other popular varieties of animal crackers and cookies, in general.
(C) Bitsy Smart Crackers– These cookies do contain some dehydrated veggies and are made with some whole grains (although it’s not the first ingredient). They do contain added sugar.
Rebecca Miller, MPH, RDN, LDN is a registered dietitian Nutritionist with Ochsner Fitness Center. She also writes a blog called Twisted Nutrition where she shares recipes, meal plans, and more! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 504.842.9551 or followed on Instagram (@TwistedNutrition).