Packing a lunch box for our kids is a feat in itself. Then there’s attempting to pack a balanced & healthy lunch box for kids. An even bigger challenge for busy parents. Heck, I’m a Nutritionist and sometimes I even get stumped trying to avoid duplication.
If you find yourself resorting to sandwiches and the same ol’ lunches, this post is for you.
If you wonder whether your little one is getting a balanced meal, this is definitely for you!
I know mornings are hectic. I might even go so far to say they are “hellish” some days. So let’s take some of the pain out of packing lunches for your little one right now. What I’m about to share can actually be used for planning ALL meals. Not just lunch!
Why a balanced lunch box for kids?
- It fuels children with sustained energy. No blood sugar high and lows (and fewer tantrums).
- It feeds their brain so they can focus, learn, and communicate much better.
- It reduces their chances of common childhood nutrient deficiencies (omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, B12, etc).
This next section provides a high-level overview of the 4 things I include in every one of my meal plans for kids (my own or others). I break this down further in this complimentary download. It includes an awesome (parent-approved) Mix & Match Lunch Box cheatsheet with over 60 lunch ideas across the 4 categories I’m about to reveal.
As a mom who can’t seem to make it through a “to do” list, I know I don’t want to dedicate hours to packing lunch boxes. This is the cheatsheet I use to maintain variety while still maintaining my sanity!
4 things every healthy (and balanced) lunch box needs
Includes: Vegetables and Fruit (but mostly veggies)
How much: Half of their lunch box should be veggies (with a serving of fruit).
Only 22% of toddlers and preschoolers and 16% of kids ages 6 to 11 meet the government’s recommendation for fruit and vegetable intake in the US. – Source
No lunch box or meal is complete without fresh whole produce. The good news for us parents is that the “green” section of their lunch box requires little prep work. Chopping carrot coins, slicing cucumbers sticks, spiralizing zucchini noodles, washing blueberries…you get the point. Those “greens” (even fruit and veggies that aren’t necessarily green in colour) contain a multitude of vitamins, minerals and other healthy compounds. They are also loaded with filling fiber to keep them satiated longer and to help their bowels become more regular. Kids really can’t thrive without them.
My fave: Cruciferous veggies (especially roasted broccoli or cauliflower)
Includes: Tubers (Root Veggies), Whole Grains and Legumes
Note: In attempt to keep with the rhyming theme here, I generalize by using the term “Grains” for this section. “Grains”, “Greens”, “Proteins” rolled off the tongue nicely and makes it easier for tired parents to remember. BUT “Grains” encompasses more than grains like rice and quinoa. Sweet potatoes, parsnips, and a long list of other non-grain foods ALSO fall into this category.
How much: About a quarter of their lunch box should be from a carbohydrate source from grains, beans and tubers.
Grains have gotten a bad rap, but the data is strong that they are health promoting. – Dr. Alan Christianson
Our little ones are little balls of energy, so we need to fuel that energy with the right foods. Hence carbohydrates represent more than 50% of their caloric intake. Their brain needs glucose from carb rich veggies such as squash and sweet potatoes, unprocessed grains and well-prepared legumes (i.e. soaking helps release nutrients). Yes, veggies and fruit are in the carb family, however it’s tough to obtain sufficient calories from them alone.
A word of caution for those with various health complaints (such as digestive discomfort, autism, mood issues (anxiety, ADHD), etc). Please pay close attention to how your little one reacts to grains, especially the gluten-containing variety. They are often the culprit for a multitude of health challenges.
As much as 15 percent of the population may be gluten intolerant, which means they should avoid products made with wheat, rye, spelt and barley. – Source (Organic Authority)
My fave: Sweet potatoes
Includes: Legumes, Eggs, Poultry, Fish, Seafood, Meat, Dairy, Nuts & Seeds
How much: The other quarter of their lunch box should be from quality protein source. I do recommend including an animal protein at least 3-4 times per week (for a more efficient dose of B12, zinc and iron, which are often lacking in kids).
Our children’s bodies rely on protein for so many reasons. Not only do proteins work as antibodies to assist the immune system, they also promote growth, help build muscle and create new healthy cells. Not just any protein will do though. If offering animal sources always opt for organic meats (hormone-free and antibiotic-free) and preferably 100% grass-fed to get the biggest nutrition bang for those small bites.
Depending on the breed of cow, grass-fed beef contains between 2 and 5 times more omega-3s than grain-fed beef. [It] also contains higher levels of beneficial nutrients including zinc, iron, phosphorus, sodium, potassium [and antioxidants]. - Source
My faves: Egg yolks and mackerel
Includes: Fish, Meat, Dairy, Fruit (Avocado and Coconut), Oils, Butter, Olives, Nuts & Seeds
How much: 1-3 years old need 35-40% of their total caloric intake in the form of healthy fats (while older kids needs 25-35%). For the average toddler, that’s about 6 tablespoons of fat per day (so ~2 tablespoons for lunch if offering throughout the day).
Did you know that the brain is made of 60% fat?!! It grows the fastest in the first 2 years of life and continues developing in the toddler years. Hence cholesterol & fatty acids are required for optimal brain and nerve activity. As with protein, quality is a priority. We want to focus on fats from the sources above and avoid cooking with oils that don’t tolerate high temperatures. For instance: coconut oil, butter, grape seed oil, and avocado oil are great for cooking. Olive, flax, hemp, and other vegetable oils are not.
Fatty acids are responsible for carrying fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K and they help improve absorption of valuable nutrients such as lycopene (found in tomatoes) and beta-carotene (found in orange veggies).
Studies have confirmed that boosting your child’s intake of DHA (an omega 3 fatty acid) as an infant and into the school-age years may be a simple way to generate measurable improvements in their brain function. - Source
All animal sources of protein contain some amount of fat, so you don’t have to worry about adding additional sources. If you little one is having pasta and veggies for lunch, toss in some avocado, olives, or sprinkle on some hemp seeds. Or drizzle veggies and pasta with some oil or butter to up the fat content. A little fat goes a long way…keeping them satiated longer and feeding that little but growing brain!
My faves: Avocado and Coconut oil