It’s that time of year, again (already?)! August arrives with a splash, and the pool is in full swing. But alongside the watermelon smiles lapping up sunshine is the steady realization…it’s time to get back in the groove. Kids aren’t the only ones who may have to work at readjusting to the return to the structure of the school year. Parents also have schedules and routines to become familiar with anew. Not least, planning out portable, healthy snacks–the kind that pack and keep nicely in a lunchbox and stand much more than a fighting chance of not being traded or trashed.
Summertime is literally bursting with a rainbow of nutritious, kid-friendly snack options, from fruit kabobs to easy healthy homemade popsicles. But the confines of a lunchbox and other restrictions doesn’t mean healthy habits have to be sacrificed throughout the school year. In a way, having the structure of the school day can make healthy nutrition habits easier to promote. “Snacks get a bad rap mainly because of the low quality of snack choices and amount of eating, especially unplanned snacks, “says Kaiser Permanente registered dietitian and LWL Steering Committee member Sue Heikkinen. “Nonstop ‘grazing’ on low nutrition foods can cause children to skimp on dinner and reduce overall nutritional quality of diet. With some planning, however, a snack can be a nutrition plus, not a downfall.”
Here, dig in to a few helpful tips and ideas for healthy snack and lunchbox planning. With a little choice and preparation, you can satisfy everyone’s appetites–at school, on the job, at home, and on-the-go–with fun, healthy treats!
Think big picture. “A snack should help tide a child over to the next meal, not replace the meal,” Sue advises. When packing snacks and lunches, be mindful of overall quantities. Sue recommends healthy, balanced snacks or 100-200 kcals, including fiber and some protein. A few examples: a carton of Greek yogurt/handful of grapes; 3 cups air popped popcorn/1 string cheese; 1 banana/1 tablespoon peanut butter; 6 whole grain crackers, baby carrots, ⅓ cup hummus.
Box up artfully. Take a few extra minutes to compartmentalize and purposefully assorted healthy fruits and veggies. There may not be time to create a picture or image (but if there is, all the more fun!), but the visual appeal created by neatly tucking in different colors and shapes adds extra yum-factor and encouragement. You can purchase bento-box style containers, or wedge together smaller open containers inside the larger lunch or snack box.
Get in shape. Who isn’t a fan of cookie cutters? Change things up here and there for little ones, and add fun to healthy choices with bear, heart, and other shapes. It’s like a secret handshake, only it’s really a hug.
Make it a team effort. Lay out a whole bunch of assorted choices and encourage your child to select and/or assemble lunch fare for greater buy-in. Encourage kids to try new fillings, different fruits and vegetables, and salads. Try wrapping fillings in lettuce leaves, or sandwiching spreads between sliced cucumbers.
Hot and cold. When choosing containers, consider if an insulated lunch bag or box with room for a freezer pack may work for your family. Options better kept cold will be opened up, such as creamy dips, cottage cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt.
Bulk up. Like buying in bulk, prepping in bulk can help ease the load throughout the week, especially with when it comes to easy treats like trail mix. Make a big batch with plain toasted oats cereal/Cheerios, assorted no-added sugar dried fruits, sunflower seeds, soy nuts or mixed nuts (if allowed at school).
Kick it up a notch with old standbys. Simple canned tuna, tuna salad, chopped eggs or egg salad are even better with shredded carrots, cucumber, celery, and other vegetables thrown in; and, PB&J isn’t much of a match for nut butter with sliced banana or apples.
Make it a mixer. Vegetables like carrot sticks and sugar snap peas have a lightly sweet crunch that go great with finger food fruits, like grapes. Let kids create their own combinations. The flavors sing on their own, or will go well served with a simple plain yogurt and honey dip.
Let it go–frozen. Store containers of unsweetened applesauce or sliced fruits in juice in the freezer and pull them out just before heading out the door. By the time snack or lunch time hits, they’ll be perfect slushies.
Finger foods rule. Keep the time constraints at school in mind when packing lunches. By the time kids arrive and get seated at the cafeteria, twenty minutes or less to eat is not uncommon. Foods requiring peeling, tricky unwrapping, or other pre-eating work may cost valuable time.
Set up wholesome home routines. “Kids often come home hungry from school, and it can be easy to overeat,” Sue cautions. “How snacks are eaten is as important as what is eaten. Ask your child to sit down to enjoy his/her snack, eating from a plate or bowl at the table, not the package at the fridge. Taking the time can help with the school/home transition, allowing for calm and greater mindfulness while eating.” Sue suggests keeping a container or drawer in the fridge full of pre-approved snacks, allowing children some control and helping to avoid battles.