Updated: Feb 16
Fresh notebooks, clean backpacks…school is back in session! For dietitians that means honing in on our healthy lunch ideas for families. Being a pediatric dietitian, I have heard about really frightening school lunch menus, though more schools seem to be providing healthier and tastier lunch options. But what to do when you need to pack your lunch every day? Let’s focus on some fresh ideas for packed lunches.
Time allotted for lunch is rarely enough for eating and socializing. While it is important for every growing young person to have a healthy, balanced lunch (and actually EAT it), it is even more important for the young athlete. Especially young athletes who are going from school to multiple hours of training many days of the week in addition to homework, chores, other activities and hanging out with family and friends. Many dancers focus only on fueling right before and (sometimes) after training but fueling throughout the day and post training are critical to maintaining not only strength, endurance and energy but also providing for adequate growth and development. Skipping meals is not an option for growing kids and young adults and it can be especially detrimental to young athletes.
A basic guideline for any lunch is to include something from the 5 main food groups; grains, vegetables, fruit, meat/meat alternatives and dairy/dairy alternatives. Yes, it’s that simple. When broken down into macronutrient groups, it is essential to include lean protein, carbohydrates (preferably complex carbohydrates – “whole grains”) and a bit of healthy fat. Don’t go too heavy on the fats, even the healthy ones, as you want that fuel to be available when arriving at dance class later in the afternoon.
Peanut butter and jelly or turkey and cheese on whole wheat bread is certainly an option for those with more traditional palates (and no nut restrictions at school) but for those looking for alternatives to the standard, check out some of my favorite packed lunch options!
Now start getting creative! Try a whole grain wrap/bagel/pita/tortilla/bagel/bread with:
hummus and veggies
chicken salad and spinach
refried beans, cheese/avocado with salsa
pesto/pasta sauce and mozzarella and veggies
pulled chicken with:
peanut sauce and veggies in a wrap/lettuce
barbecue sauce and shredded cabbage on bread/wrap
or skip the sandwich/wrap type of thing and have:
yogurt or oatmeal with fruit and nuts/seeds
Pasta salad with vegetables and chicken or beans (my son is obsessed with pesto pasta salad right now!)
Leftovers (depending on re-heat ability)
Spinach salad with egg, chicken, beans, avocado, fruit, nuts… lots of great options here but make sure salads have a protein source and some substance, not just lettuce, cheese and ranch dressing!
Kebobs, chicken satay, skewers with protein and veggies
Cold noodle salads with protein and veggies
LUNCH EQUIPMENT Packing lunches is considerably easier if you have the right “equipment”. Talk to your parents about investing in a lot of small containers of various sizes to accommodate packing different foods (or check out the fun bento boxes available everywhere). Just because something is not a “traditional lunch food” does not mean you can’t take it for lunch!
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Now have fun and happy fueling!