One of the things I've learned as a mom is to put together a healthy, delicious lunch box for my young one super fast -- one that he'll look forward to eating. Here, I'm sharing my best secrets and tips with you to make those back-to-school days just a little easier.
School opens today, and if you're a parent, you know exactly why my nerves feel more than a bit frazzled right now.
The past few days have been a whirl of homework packets to turn in, school supplies, orientation, parents' night and a million other little back-to-school nitty-gritties for our incoming middle schooler. It promises to be a busy year, for him and poor us, and on top of all that sits the big question: how do I make sure my no-longer-so-little boy eats well?
Jay is a fussy eater who loves a food one day and hates it the next (and vice versa), and he doesn't hesitate to throw food away when my back is turned. I also realize that as he gets older, what he eats when he's out of the house is going to be harder for me to control. So when I plan his lunch boxes, I try and trash-proof (is that correct usage? Well, you know what I mean) it with foods that are nutritious enough to make me happy and also tasty enough to keep him happy.
How can I plan a healthy lunch for my kids without spending too much time?
By taking help. You may pride yourself on being Supermom or Superdad, but be willing to cheat a little or you'll go crazy. Most of Jay's lunches are made with stuff I buy from the grocery store (usually Aldi's, which has some great, inexpensive vegan options, or Costco), with a little bit of homecooked stuff thrown in. I'll buy gnocchi or ravioli from the store and douse it in my easy marinara sauce that Jay loves. And I love making vegan meatballs at home when I have the time, but I don't hesitate to buy them pre-made from the store so I can stir them into pasta or stuff them into a meatball sandwich.
Plan your lunchbox meals ahead. If you want to include healthy, homemade snacks, make them ahead, on the weekend. Most vegan wholegrain baked goods take just minutes to stir up and the oven does the rest of the work. Or just buy the snacks from the store but make sure you're choosing healthy options with a fun edge, like chickpea curls that are kinda like cheetos, only healthier.
What does a healthy and vegan school lunch look like?
Pretty much like a healthy meal should for anyone. If I pack a veggie burger (which he loves), I'll put it in a whole wheat bun that has hummus on it instead of mayo, and a slice of tomato and some greens. I make sure he has a fruit, and then, for fun, I'll throw in a handful of chips or crackers or pretzels to munch on. I also always include a drink, most likely a vegan nut-based or soy-based milk, or, rarely, an all-fruit juice with no added sugars (I'd rather he ate the fruit whole).
You can certainly use leftovers for school meals, especially if it's something fun like this vegan tater tot casserole that still tastes great the next day and is incredibly kid friendly.
As our world focuses more and more on nutrients -- eating protein, carbs and fats in specific proportions based on which diet you're on -- I've tended to go the opposite way. My mindset in recent months has been not to focus on individual nutrients but on whole foods, and it's uncanny how, when you do that, you'll find that you tend to eat healthy and get all the nutrients you need.
I find that thinking this way also makes you enjoy the experience of eating more, because you're eating real food. And it also helps children adopt a healthier attitude toward food.
Finally, before we jump in, there are lots of gluten-free and nut-free options here as well. I have hundreds of vegan, kid-friendly recipes on this blog, and I couldn't include them all here, but if you have something in mind, don't hesitate to use the search box in the sidebar.
Easy recipes and ideas for great school lunch box main meals:
When making meals for the lunch box at home, try and think of easy recipes that you can make ahead, that keep well in the refrigerator or the freezer, and that don't take too much time to cook. As picky as kids are, I find that simpler recipes, with clean flavors, are what my little one seems to love best.
- Veggie burgers. You can make your own (find some delicious vegan veggie burgers here -- the sprouted mung bean burger is my favorite), or buy them at the store. You can find vegan burgers almost at any grocery store now, and Aldi's has a great range of inexpensive vegan burgers that are very kid-friendly, including a chickenless burger and a black bean burger.
- Anything healthy stuffed in puff pastry. You can try these vegan sausage rolls that take minutes to make, or these vegan chickpea turnovers or these samosa pastry squares or these vegetable puffs.
- Burritos. Jay loves burritos and it's easy enough to put some together with homemade or storebought (vegan) refried beans, a smashed avocado and salsa.
- Vegan quesadillas.
- Pasta salads. Try this wholesome lentil pasta salad.
- Any pasta with marinara sauce. Kids love marinara and sometimes I'll dress it up some more with vegan faux meats or vegan meatballs. Try my homemade marinara recipe, which takes less than five minutes of hands-on work. Or try this Instant Pot Spaghetti with "Meaty" Marinara.
- Lasagna. Doesn't every kid love it? This cheesy and classic vegan lasagna is a surefire kid pleaser.
- Pizza rolls. Need I say more? Like everything on this list, you can make these ahead and refrigerate.
- Vegan Garlicky, Cheesy Pull Apart Bread.
- If you're used to Indian cooking, you could try making my foolproof and super easy Aloo Parathas. This is hands-down Jay's favorite lunch and since everything but the dough and the potatoes comes out of a packet, it is not at all time-consuming or difficult to put together. You can make the parathas ahead and refrigerate them.
- Pita pockets stuffed with falafel, lettuce, tomatoes with a drizzle of vegan yogurt. Make the falafel ahead or buy, and assemble for the lunch box. Wrap these in aluminum foil to keep everything from spilling out into the lunchbox.
- Pita packets. These are actually stuffed with broccoli and tofu and Jay still loves them, but you can switch up the fillings to something healthy your young one will love. The sealed pita packets are also more lunchbox friendly.
- Vegetable Fried Rice or Garlic Fried Rice.
- Noodles. Which kid doesn't love them? Try these stir-fry noodles (skip the mushrooms if your kid won't eat them) or these crack chilli tofu noodles, a sure kid pleaser.
- Ramen noodles. Wait, before you make a disgusted sound and click away, hear me out. You can skip the flavor packets of the ramen noodles and stir in flavors you love. I make an Indian-flavored version where I crackle up some mustard seeds in oil, add tomatoes and green peas, stir-fry for barely a minute, add a dash of garam masala, and then stir the lot into the cooked ramen noodles. Jay slurps them up in seconds. Try and buy organic ramen when you can and pack in a thermos to keep the noodles hot so they won't clump together.
- Veggie dogs. I agree this is not the healthiest food, but it can be a quick lunchbox meal for a busy day, and veggie dogs, although processed and not perfect for sure, are a much better option than regular hot dogs, which can kill you. I usually get my smart dogs from Aldi's, and they're easily available at most supermarkets.
Snack ideas for the lunch box:
I pick up a lot of my snacks at Costco or Aldi's, which has great non-GMO, organic vegan options. Trader Joe's is another favorite, as is Whole Foods, but Aldi's is certainly way more affordable.
- Chickpea puffs (I get the Hippeas brand from Costco in a big bag and they are a nice vegan sub for Cheetos)
- Roasted seaweed snacks
- Peanut butter filled pretzels
- Sunflower seeds
- Homemade sourdough pretzels.
- Rice cakes of different flavors, you can buy sweet or savory depending on what your child likes.
- Trail mix (make your own or buy it from the store)
- Pita chips with homemade hummus
- Crispy tofu cubes, like this vegan crack tofu.
- Fresh fruit, like apples, oranges, berries, grapes and cherries.
- Pickled cucumbers -- kids love them because they're crunchy and salty. You might want to limit these because of the high sodium content, but I pack a pickle in Jay's lunch box once or twice a week and I'd rather he ate that than a processed snack food.
- Baked chickpea samosas
- Dry fruit like apricots, pineapple, raisins, mango and even prunes (Jay loves prunes, I don't know why).
- A slice of a homemade fruit or veggie bread, like zucchini bread, mango bread, carrot bread or pumpkin bread.
- A sweet treat like these wholegrain brownies or these chocolate hazelnut cookies or any wholegrain cookie. For a really easy treat they'll love, try these gluten-free and vegan Almond Flour Shortbread Cookies that go from scratch to done in 20 minutes.
- Wholegrain muffins, or just any kind of muffins. These mini vegan applesauce muffins are great to stuff into the lunchbox, or try these wholegrain banana crumb muffins that no kid can resist.
- Slivers of cucumber. Kids seem to like them and Jay is extra happy when I add these to his lunchbox. They can turn a bit watery, so make sure you have airtight compartments in the lunch box if you pack these.
- Carrot sticks or wholegrain crackers and homemade hummus
- Roasted chickpeas
- Vegetables mashed with potatoes and shallow-fried or baked, like these vegetable cutlets.
- Peanut butter and jelly. The old stand-by, but still good and rather healthy, especially if you use wholegrain bread and jelly that is just fruit and sugar with minimal preservatives. This can also be your main lunchbox item, of course, as it quite often is around here. I love the mixed nut and seed butters that you can find in stores these days -- I know both Costco and Aldi have a version of it. They are nice and crunchy with the seeds and kids love 'em.
Beverages for your child's lunch:
Jay tends to like soda as most kids would, but I only let him have it as a special treat. For his lunch box, I try and find other healthy options, and with so many choices now in the market, there's something for everyone.
- Flavored vegan milks. These are easily available now, even at some mainstream groceries, and you can certainly find great options at Whole Foods. I get a chocolate banana almond milk from Costco for Jay.
- Coconut water
- Lemonade. Not the bottled kind, but fresh and homemade lemonade is a great and healthy alternative to soda or a sugary fruit juice.
- Fruit juice. I am not a great fan of fruit juices because they usually contain too much sugar. If your kid loves them, try and choose something that's just juice and no added sugar. I tend not to do this much because unsweetened juices don't go down too well with Jay who has a very sweet tooth, but if you have a more accommodating kid, it's a great vegan beverage option.
- Vegan kefir. It's a nice alternative to yogurt, and there are so many kinds available now, flavored and unflavored. You can even make your own.
- Kombucha, if you can find something that's not too sugary and that you know is not alcoholic. 😉
I'll add to these ideas above as and when I think of and discover more, and I'd love to hear if you have any ideas of your own that you'd like to share with us. I'll also update this post with photos of Jay's lunchboxes, as we make them.
For more ideas, check out these posts: