6 ways to make healthy, simple kids’ lunches in an unusual school year

CNN  — 

Whether your kids will be at school at all times, fully remote or on a hybrid schedule, there is a good likelihood that time will be spent making lunches at home.

I’m a mother of two girls whose schools are going fully remote this September, so it’s on my mind. So what are some strategies for making lunches easy, fun and nutritious? And are there ways that kids can help, too? Yes, on both counts.

I love making lunches with my daughters because they not only learn how different foods nourish their minds and bodies; it also offers them a sense of accomplishment. Measuring ingredients when following new recipes or dividing up a pizza for the family also reinforces their math skills, which is an added bonus.

Here are some of my own tips and recipes, along with advice from other nutrition and culinary experts on preparing healthy, simple and tasty lunches for this unconventional school year.

Whether you have a toddler, tween or teenager, you and your child can prepare school lunches that will keep your family nourished and organized as the school year unfolds.

1. Plan lunches ahead of time

“Even if you aren’t going anywhere except to the dining room table for school, planning is important,” said Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital and an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.

“This is a time of uncertainty and planning can help establish a sense of normalcy for kids,” King said. “Not to mention, preparing the lunch just as if you would pack it for school will help prevent your children from mindless eating and wandering to the kitchen.”

If school is remote, making lunch in advance can also spare working parents from having to interrupt their workday to make a midday meal, explained Victoria Stein Feltman, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Apple to Zucchini, a healthy-eating resource for parents and families.

To make the week ahead less stressful, designate a time during the weekend when you can plan ahead for the week’s lunches. This will allow you to know which foods you’ll need on hand. You can also design a weekly lunch menu and post it on the refrigerator.

Like any other new school year, create some excitement by purchasing a new lunch box or bag, even if your child will be learning from home. Nutrition experts recommend bento box-style containers, which offer easy portion control and separation of various foods and are great for introducing new foods or offering small amounts of sweets.

2. Keep it simple

Lunches don’t have to be complicated. You can simply target four items in lunch: a protein food such as meat, eggs, nut butter or beans; a fruit or vegetable; whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain crackers, pasta or a bagel; and a dairy food, such as cheese, yogurt or milk, which could also serve as a protein source, said Jill Castle, pediatric dietitian and creator of The Nourished Child, a nutrition education website for parents.

Selecting foods from these groups also helps ensure that nutrition needs are met, since children need protein for growth and focus during school, healthy carbohydrates for sustained energy, healthy fats for brain development and dairy or other calcium-rich foods for strong bones and teeth.

3. Involve your kids in lunch prep

“Since schooling from home doesn’t take as long as going in-person, you can use the extra time to add an important life skill to your child’s curriculum – cooking in the kitchen!” said Lisa Leake, author of “100 Days of Real Food.” “It’s not only a wonderful learning experience, but a great confidence booster as well!”

“It can be empowering for the kids to ‘make’ lunch without a lot of support from mom and dad,” Feltman agreed.

And here’s a bonus: Children are more likely to eat nutritious meals if they play a role in creating them.

When planning lunches, allow your kids to suggest ideas and shop for foods, even if you are purchasing foods online. Ask them to select breads and rolls, vegetables, fruits and spreads.

If it’s an option, take your kids to the farmer’s market “and let them pick out fruits and vegetables,” Feltman said. You can then serve vegetables with a favorite dip or sauce like apples with sunflower seed butter, carrots with hummus or bell peppers with guacamole.

When it comes to prepping lunches, children as young as 4 years old can spread cream cheese or a nut or nut-free butter on bread and mash tuna or hard-boiled eggs for egg salad, explained Jessica Levinson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and culinary nutrition expert in Westchester, New York.

Kids can also mix ingredients for salads, tear lettuce leaves for sandwiches and wash fruits and vegetables. Older kids can help cut up vegetables, make a big pot of grains or bake breads and muffins, Feltman said.

Make the assembly easy: If you are planning a peanut butter and jelly sandwich but your child is past the lunch box stage and prefers to create lunches in real time, place all ingredients – jars, bread and a plastic knife (if necessary) – out on the counter so he or she can quickly assemble it if you are busy working. Similarly, if a salad is on the lunch menu, put ingredients like chopped tomatoes, broccoli, chickpeas, shredded cheese and pasta in prep bowls and leave the dressing within reach in the refrigerator.

If you are around to help, this can be a wonderful time to spark a conversation about the nutrients that lunch provides.

“There’s nothing like hands-on food assembly to engage children and make teachable moments about food and nutrition come alive,” Castle said. She likes serving DIY pizza, tacos or sandwiches for a change of pace.

4. Consider freezing lunch foods

The key to making school lunches easy, according to Leake, is to make lunch foods in advance and freeze them. Some ideas include homemade whole-grain muffins, burritos, chicken nuggets, smoothies, grilled sandwiches, soups or stews (which you can freeze in individual portions), pancakes, waffles, quick breads, and more (note: for specific ideas/instructions click here).

“Simply make one recipe each weekend, consider doubling things you know they will love, and keep on hand in the freezer for when it’s time to pack lunch. Then, the night before, simply take out one premade item to defrost and pack it in the fridge along with some fresh produce and other simple additions.”

5. Make it fun

Lunchtime is a great opportunity to be creative with food! Try making food faces and use cookie or sandwich cutters in the shapes of animals, ballerinas, sports items, butterflies, hearts and stars.

Kabobs, like colorful fruit kebobs or tomato and cheese kabobs, can reinforce pattern making. Leake suggested adding fun toothpicks and cute notes, which can be premade or handwritten.

“When lunch is fun, kids look forward to it,” Castle said.

Castle recommended using themed lunches for different days of the week, like a “Monday Munch Lunch,” with cheese or peanut butter and crackers, baby carrots and dip, nuts and dried or fresh fruit, all served on a large platter, or “Friday Favorites Lunch” where the kids decide the menu, or a dessert is included.

Feltman liked school favorites such as “Breakfast for Lunch,” “Make Your Own Taco Bar” and “Pizza Day.”

6. Consider leftovers for lunch

“Lunch is a great opportunity to repurpose leftovers from dinner the night before, both at home and school,” Feltman said.

Eating leftovers for lunch also results in less food waste. Simply roll up the ingredients of last night’s protein with veggies into a wrap, tortilla or taco. You can also use leftover rotisserie chicken, turkey or fish for sandwiches or salads.

Lunch ideas

For lists of various lunch items, check out Leake’s school lunch packing chart. “Ask (kids) to check off what looks good to them and that they’ll actually eat,” Leake said.

Whip up a batch of veggie egg muffins on the weekend.

Remember to use the weekends to prepare lunch items. Levinson often makes a batch of her egg muffins and quinoa and veggie bites for her daughters’ lunches.

Other quick and easy healthy lunch choices, courtesy of Feltman, include:

  • Smoked salmon on a small whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese and sliced tomato
  • Lentil soup with chicken sausage
  • Veggie or turkey chili with cornbread

On the side:

  • Cut-up vegetables: carrots, red peppers, cucumbers, jicama with favorite dips
  • Apple or pear slices and nut or seed butter or yogurt
  • Fresh fruit (berries, bananas, oranges, clementines, sliced mango, watermelon, cantaloupe)
  • Dried or baked fruit (mango, apples, papaya, prunes, figs, apricots)
  • Plain full-fat yogurt parfaits (made with granola, chopped nuts and frozen fruit)

For more ideas from Jessica Levinson’s kitchen and mine too, check out the photo gallery at top.

Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.