Back to School with Healthier Lunch Boxes

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Posted by Meeta K. Wolff

j0175437Soeren's already back at school since the past few weeks, but in many countries schools are still out for a few weeks. Not sure about how you feel, but vacations always bring back some of the easy going feeling and especially after summer break I seem to be scrambling to keep up with the hectic pace school life and chores bring along.

One thing that needs attention everyday is packing balanced and healthy lunch boxes. They need their daily nutrients to keep them active and give them the power to get through the day. Unfortunately, in our convenient world, lunch boxes are often filled with packaged ‘convenience’ foods. Full-calorie soda, chips, and cookies can add up to a lot of excess fat, sugar, sodium and calories, which may contribute to long-term health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, these extra calories also make kids sluggish or cranky in the afternoons.

After packing lunches for Soeren over the past few years I have learned quite a few things. Next week he's going to be 7 and very much has a head of his own. So, I know that the lunch boxes has to have items which he enjoys and is most likely to eat.

What we've done is made a chart and included included all his favorite healthy foods. The chart divides the foods into different groups and we try to focus on a variety to be able to provide a balanced lunch box. This provides the energy and nutrients needed to grow, play, learn and stay healthy.

The basics are simple - the lunch box needs to include:

  • One serving of vegetables or salad and a serving of fruit (preferably fresh, but canned or dried can counts).
  • One serving of a low-fat or fat-free dairy item such as a low-fat cheese stick, a yogurt cup, milk or some cottage cheese.
  • One source of protein. Things like meat, chicken, fish, eggs, peanut butter or beans.
  • A healthy drink such as water or unsweetened 100% juice or as Soeren likes a mix of 100% fruit juice with some sparkling water.

With this in mind the chart is fairly simple to create. Below I've made a copy of Soeren's chart.

Main Vegetable/Salad
Fruit Dairy Protein Drink
Whole wheat pita with egg salad + quark dressing Carrots Strawberries
Natural quark w/honey and peaches Gouda cheese stick
Apple juice w/Sparkling water
Multigrain bread with tuna salad Cucumber Sticks Peaches
Chocolate milk Unsalted cashew nuts/almonds Cherry Juice w/ sparkling water
Rye bread with turkey meatballs
Bell Peppers (no green ones) Homemade apple sauce Plain yogurt w/ agave nectar and strawberries Hummus dip
Multivitamin juice
Chicken/Falafel wraps Tabouleh Honey Melon
Plain yogurt w/ blueberries    

These are just a few of his favorite things. There are plenty more items he likes but we wanted to list just a few so that both of us understand in which direction we are going. What I mean is, by getting Soeren to make this chart with me he is more aware of the healthy things he likes. For me it means something to follow when I am lost for ideas or need some inspiration.

I use the chart to mix and match and as a basis to make new creations. From a very young age Soeren ate a lot of fruit - I am lucky there as I get no fuss in that aspect. In addition I do add a healthy treat or snack, like buckwheat blueberry muffins or homemade cookies, sticky buns etc. I prefer to make these treats at home so I can manage the level of sugar and use healthy organic products with less preservatives.

It’s important to add variety and be innovative. If you’re packing cheese and cucumber, cheese and lettuce, or cheese and tomato day in and day out it most probably will get monotonous.

Apples 02a Here are a few ideas I’ve successfully put past Soeren:

  • I use different kinds of breads avoiding white bread as much as I can. I try to make variations of different sandwiches – everything from whole wheat pita, naan bread to wraps and baguettes, focaccia to ciabatta rolls.
  • Sneaky mums add salad to the sandwiches – arugula, shredded cabbage, lettuce, cress etc. Soeren has learned to love his salad in this way!
  • I use different spreads like goat cheese, cream cheese, avocado dip or a herb flavored quark. Go easy on the butter and avoid mayo.  
  • Add raw veggies like cucumbers, carrots and bell peppers to the lunch box as a side to nibble along with the sandwiches. I make this a must. Soeren loves to have a dip with these raw veggies. I often pack a hummus, herby flavored quark,  plain cottage cheese or a yogurt tahini dip for him to dunk his veggies into.
  • A nice change from sandwiches are leftovers from a quiche, spring rolls or pasta bake.
  • I pack at least 2 types of fruit in his lunch box. Strawberries, blueberries, yellow kiwis, raspberries, apples, orange wedges, melon slices – the list goes on.
  • During the colder season when the variety of fruit is not as abundant as in the summer, I often turn to dried fruit and nuts.
  • Sometimes I skip sandwiches and make a salad with couscous, bulgur, pasta or rice. Adding some shredded chicken, veggies or hard boiled eggs makes it more filling. Fat-free or low-fat dressing is often packed in a separate container.
  • Drinks – I pay very close attention to this. It’s amazing how many drinks label themselves as “healthy!” but a closer look at the label show that they are loaded with sugar. I usually buy 100% fruit juices like apple, grape or cherry. I fill Soeren’s drink thermos with 1/2 juice and the rest is topped off with sparkling water. Low-fat and unsweetened chocolate milk and unsweetened herb/fruit iced teas are also a few of Soeren’s favorite drinks.
  • Like every child, Soeren loves snacks and treats. I usually make mini treats like small muffins, cookies and brownies, where instead of sugar, I use agave nectar, honey or maple syrup. Smaller mini versions satisfy the snacker’s appetite and does not have that many calories/sugar as the larger portions. Furthermore, I try to use fruit as much as I can in my baked treats.

bento20090116 If you are looking for great inspiration you’ll find several healthy, fun, innovative and scrumptious lunch box ideas right here on the Daily Tiffin. If you’ve ever wondered what Bento is you’ll find the answer to this and much more in our article The art of Japanese lunchboxes - an introduction to Bento.

Finally there are always times when we are in a rush and the lunch box needs to be packed quickly. The best tip I can give on this is try to prepare as much as one can the evening before.

  • Fruit and veggies can be cut the evening before and wrapped in Clingfilm.
  • Frozen rolls, bread etc. can be taken out the evening before. In the morning they are thawed and ready to be spread.
  • Spreads and dips can also be made the evening before and packed in containers.

You’ll find more useful quick lunch box packing tips in our article Need for speed: A mommy's lunch manifesto. While packing lunches, hygiene plays an important role and our food safety for packed lunches article will provide you with the best pointers.

Our recipe section might also offer you with a few healthy option for the next lunch box. These sweet Asian meatballs are simple and low in stress, which work not only as a party appetizer but also are perfect in a lunch box too. Or how about quesadillas? In our article Que Sera Sera Quesadillas, we share with you just how versatile these are. They make great alternatives to the regular sandwich. My personal all time favorite are these quick Chickpea Spinach Pockets. We also have several ideas and recipes for breads, which you can easily make at home.

I hope a few of these suggestions will help you to recover from the lunch box burn out.

Do you have more helpful and yummy lunch box ideas?
What do you find challenging when packing lunch boxes?

Share your thoughts with us. 

Are you interested in contributing to The Daily Tiffin? Drop us an email: We look forward to hearing your ideas.

This post was written by Meeta


Thank you Meeta, I was thinking this was just the kind of post DT needed, a back to lunchbox basics post for the end of summer holidays. I like your clever chart with Soerens favorites, and the foods sound reasonably yummy and healthy - good job!

Foodfreak said...
August 24, 2009 at 2:30:00 PM GMT+2  

great site love it and pics of India My hubby is Indian

August 25, 2009 at 5:42:00 AM GMT+2  

Great ideas the sandwiches and salad options.

Health Advocate said...
August 26, 2009 at 8:48:00 AM GMT+2  

Thank you for the comments.

Petra - the chart also helps my husband find his way around in case i have to be out early.

Meeta K. Wolff said...
August 27, 2009 at 9:51:00 AM GMT+2  

Oh I am so not looking forward to this starting next week. Everything else about going back to school, yes, but not the daily lunch box.

Jenny said...
August 29, 2009 at 5:11:00 PM GMT+2  

Jenny no fears - a few tips from this post and other DT lunch boxes post and you will love making lunch boces (i hope).

Meeta K. Wolff said...
August 31, 2009 at 3:50:00 PM GMT+2  


This is a fantastic post. Thank you so much for all the wonderful ideas. I have a picky preschooler, so lunch packing is a stressy affair!

Anonymous said...
September 11, 2009 at 8:18:00 PM GMT+2  

Thanks meeta....this post was real good and interesting..I will save it in my drafts for later use.....My son used to go to the day care and i used to scratch my head thinking what to give him in his lunch box!This is a great one.

Shabs.. said...
September 26, 2009 at 4:22:00 AM GMT+2  

Oh this is just the kind of info i needed rgt now. I have to pack totally 4 boxes now 2 for me and 2 for my daughter. I will start work from 1st. As much as i m excited abt it...i have my own apprehensions. I have to pack breakfast and lunch for my daughter for her school n after school day care.

I love the chart idea. Will substitute with some indian stuff n her likes....thanks so much meeta!

Veda said...
August 26, 2010 at 11:06:00 AM GMT+2  

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