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Nutrition 101

Healthy Packed Lunch Ideas

Healthy Packed Lunch Ideas

Photo: sherimiya

Dietetic Intern Nicole Rodriguez explains how a bento box can inspire your kids to eat a healthy lunch.

Packing your kids’ lunches comes with a unique set of challenges. The perfect lunch is balanced, nutritious and yummy enough to discourage your little one from making a lunch-table trade for a bag of chips. No pressure, right?

The Japanese bento-style lunchbox may be the answer to your meal-prep prayers. “A lot of kids like to keep their foods separated and combine as they choose,” says Registered Dietitian Abbie Gellman. “The bento box allows kids to have this control over their lunch time.”

Because the bento box is compartmentalized and usually leak-proof (check manufacturers for details), items like dips that were once off-limits can easily make an appearance at lunch. “Dipping is fun!” Abbie’s 6 year-old daughter, Olivia, enthuses.

An online image search of “bento box lunch ideas for kids” turned up a plethora of smiling sandwiches, rice patties shaped like Hello Kitty and hot dogs somehow fashioned as miniature teddy bears. Don’t let these ornate demonstrations of mastery deter you - bento box prep doesn’t have to turn into a masters-level sculpture class.

If you feel the urge to get creative, it’s a great opportunity to get your kids involved in the process. “Kids love to cook and are interested in being hands-on. When they are part of creating what goes on their plate, they are more likely to try new foods,” Gellman explains.

Here are five bento box ideas, sure to have even the pickiest eaters looking forward to lunch:

1. Meatless Monday

Give nut butter and jelly a nutritious makeover by swapping the jelly for fresh fruit. Thinly-sliced pear, banana, strawberry and apricot are all yummy companions to your child’s favorite spread. Cut the sandwich into quarters for visual appeal, or jazz it up using a large heart-shaped cookie cutter. Add a cheese stick or a Babybel and a few baby carrots to complete the meal.

2. Loveable leftovers

Bento boxes make it easy to pack up your child’s dinnertime favorites. A hearty combo of baked chicken pieces, brown rice, roasted vegetables and a sweet treat like butternut squash brownies will help your child power through a full afternoon.

3. Turkey “sushi”

Layer turkey slices, Swiss cheese, thin-sliced apple and spinach on a whole wheat tortilla, roll into a cigar and slice into bite-size pieces. Yogurt sauce for dipping and trail mix round out this finger-foods only bento box.

4. Chili

Fill a thermos with veggie-packed chili and use the bento box to house the fixings. Plain Greek yogurt stands in for sour cream, shredded cheese is a welcome addition and a corn tortilla or a few whole grain chips are perfect for dipping and dunking. A fruit-filled oat muffin is the icing on the cake of this hearty lunch.

5. Salad bar

No more soggy salads! Fill the largest compartment with shredded carrots and chick peas, then add your child’s favorite mix-ins to smaller compartments. Corn kernels, crumbled feta, roasted peppers and sliced black olives offer a variety of textures. Save space for pita bread and a piece of fruit.

Need to pack in a pinch? Keep these items on hand for easy bento box assembly:

  • Quinoa Salad - This ancient grain is hearty, holds up well and is a great vehicle for veggies. Keep a plain, cooked batch in the fridge and combine with a drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice and kids’ choice of crispy veggies and leafy greens. Little one not yet a fan of quinoa? Brown rice works just as well.
  • Trail mix – Create your own peanut-free version. Dried cherries, coconut flakes, almonds and a few bittersweet chocolate chips make for a balanced treat.
  • Bell peppers – Crunchy and packed with vitamin C, colorful peppers hold up nicely and are great addition to dips. They may be a welcome change from the standard baby carrot.
  • Pita bread – Its firm texture lends itself to endless creativity – cut into shapes, dressed with marinara sauce and cheese for an easy pizza, or stuffed with leftover chicken, pita bread is a versatile stand-by for the bento box.
  • Crackers – Easy-to-handle and durable, crackers are a natural for a variety of bento fillings. Try different varieties like Melba toast (delicious paired with cream cheese), rice crackers (delicate and perfect for fruit) and rye crisps (for the lover of lunchmeat).


Look for bento boxes in the Tupperware section of your local supermarket or Container Store.


Share your tips for packing a healthy lunch in the comments section below!

nutrition advice, packed lunch, packed lunches, school lunch, kids, kids lunch

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