It’s officially back to school for kids across America and for many, that means parents and kids are back at it packing food. While there’s nothing wrong with a good old PBJ, pretzels and banana, those options get old fast and variety is crucial to a healthful diet. So, I’m sharing some of my top balanced school lunches for active kids, packed with energy and nutrients to fuel your child’s busy lifestyle. Plus, they can all be made nut and peanut free as well as gluten-free! And no shame if you pack yourself the same lunch for work, too.
I shared all of these allergen-friendly school lunches for active kids on Fox 29 Philly – Cooper even made an appearance!
But First, Lunchboxes
I’m a big fan of my cooler lunch bag that is able to be frozen itself vs. having to add an ice pack, but it isn’t feasible for many kids to take to school and for young kids especially, it helps to have all components in one container, versus having to take them out of multiple. Here are some of the top lunch boxes out there, also known as “bento” style lunch boxes, which have separate areas for all components of a meal. I use them for Cooper at daycare; at his age, with the quantity of food he needs, sometimes can even fit one of his snacks into the same container, too.
This one is great because the inside portion and the top suction together to make it leak-proof. The inner portion is also removable and able to be put into the dishwasher, making clean up easy.
Expandable, Collapsable, Silicone Container
This one is my go-to with Cooper most days and I love that it can grow with him since it is collapsable. It isn’t as leak proof as the Bentgo, so something that has the potential to leak would be better in another box.
4 Compartment YumBox
While we technically have one under the Samrog brand, this is the newest comparable version with three main compartments and an extra for condiments or a small treat.
Adequate Energy Intake
Active kids need plenty of energy along with adequate protein, vitamins and minerals for growth, physically and mentally. Fat is crucial as well for energy and brain development among many other functions. When kids (and adults) have the proper amounts of energy and nutrients in meals, they’re more likely to be satisfied, leaving them able to pay attention in school for increased productivity. Plus, fueling earlier in the day means they have the energy they need for practice or athletic competitions after school. This allows for better performance while their bodies are able to continue growing the way they need. Aim to include the following in school lunches, as well as packing them a carb and protein rich snack to have at another point during the day, even if they no longer have a designated snack time in school.
- Fiber rich carbs
- Fruit and/or veggie
- Occasional sweet treat
If you notice your kids are overly hungry at the end of the day, and tend to eat most of their calories at dinner and later, it means they likely aren’t eating enough earlier in the day. Work with them to find options they enjoy and are nourishing so they can increase intake at breakfast, lunch and snacks. I actually am happier when Cooper has a little food leftover at school versus when he eats all of it, because it means he had enough to eat and I’m not wondering if he was still hungry.
Now, the Lunches
- Sandwich and Sides
First up, we have an option to pack in protein, healthy fats, fiber rich carbs and a treat! Plus, it’s perfect for kids who are having a period in life where they’re a little more selective with their vegetable intake, since the berries can provide a high dose of antioxidants. Without any meat, this lunch contains 27 grams of protein, well above what a child needs in one meal, and right on par with what an adolescent athlete could use to aid in normal growth and muscle repair. If an adolescent were eating this meal, I would recommend a full sandwich vs. half though, or a calorie containing beverage on the side.
This may look like your basic PBJ, but it’s actually a sandwich made with any nut or seed butter you’d like and I use apple butter (literally just reduced applesauce!) instead of jelly. I also sprinkle in a tablespoon of hemp seeds, which are a good way to pack in a few grams of protein, plus iron, which is the nutrient kids are most likely to be low in. Add some sliced cheddar (you can purchase it that way from Cabot!) and roasted beans for more nutrition, texture and taste. The chocolate chips are a fun sweet treat, and dark chocolate actually provides some iron, too!
- No-Cook Quesadilla and an Easy Side
This option can be made with or without dairy. We often send Cooper’s quesadilla with just avocado and smashed beans inside so that it doesn’t even need to be heated! The tiny compartment is perfect for salsa to dip. Add the side of peeled orange slices for vitamin C (which helps increase absorption of iron in the tortilla and beans). Your active kiddo will get more protein from the bar via both almonds and egg whites, too. There’s plenty of bars on the market, but in addition to this Epic brand one, RxBar, RxBar kids, Larabar, and Clif Zbar with protein are all great options versus granola bars to get more protein in.
- Pasta and Sides
You know you’re making pasta many nights, so why not pack leftovers for lunch? Life is busy, so we make bean based pastas once a week to pack in extra protein and iron, while also having a handful of options for sauces and veggie add ins. Peas are a fan fave for most kids, but add any veggie you’d like. On the side are simple sliced apples – the way younger kids prefer them – but you can send a whole apple with an older child, obviously. My one bowl pumpkin cranberry energy bites are also making an appearance as a nutritious and filling treat.
- No Lunch Box Option
Sometimes kids don’t want to carry around a lunchbox as they get older, and others you’re out of fresh foods and low on prep time. These items can all fit into a brown paper bag and the reusable containers can slide into any backpack afterwards without taking up much space. The wild caught tuna (or salmon) pouch is easy to smash between some whole grain crackers with an avocado or hummus packet, and you’re kids will have easy fruit and veggie sides with an apple and rainbow baby carrots.
What are your favorite easy and school lunches for active kids?
Do they check all of the following boxes? If not, what can you add?
- Fiber rich carbs
- Fruit and/or veggie
- Occasional sweet treat