This month's "Go Ahead Honey, It's Gluten-Free!" event, hosted by Ali of Whole LIfe Nutrition, is focused on packing healthy school lunches. The event was started by Naomi Devlin of Straight into Bed Cakefree and Dried, a blogger I have admired for quite some time. I've always thought this event was great, so I'm excited to participate!
While I may not have children, I do fancy myself a bit of an expert in the lunch-packing arena. I've been brown-bagging it nearly everyday for work the last six years, and since changing my diet 2 1/2 years ago have hardly left the house with a meal or snack, especially on car trips, airplane rides, or long days of errands. See that meal up there in the photo? It was delicious - red lentil garlic dip, raw veggies, brown rice tortillas, and some raw cashews. I carried it around Manhattan with me on my last trip to New York, and it was an awesomely easy, affordable, and allergy-friendly way to enjoy an afternoon in Central Park. And although I'm a 28-year-old grown woman, it was a meal that would have been equally appropriate for a school lunch for your little one.
If your child has dietary restrictions, they might feel like "weird kid" when compared to their schoolmates eating processed foods, peanut butter sandwiches, or string cheese. Thankfully, there are lots of ways that you can pack fun and delicious lunches that will make make their tummies happy and probably make their friends wish that you were packing lunch for them too.
Ways to Make Packing Lunch Fun
- The obvious: get your kids involved. Children love to participate, so encourage them to help you pack, or pack the lunch themselves. Create a checklist or master grid they can work from - Ali posted an awesome idea for a chart that she uses with her children in her post. And here's another idea - if you're packing leftovers from dinner, turn packing lunch into a fun way to help "clean up".
- Incorporate lots of colors and textures in the lunch box. For example, use small cookie cutters to create fun shapes out of fruits and vegetables. Use them in salads, sandwiches and wraps, or on open face sandwiches. Create faces on sandwiches with garnishes, or arrange sliced vegetables and fruits in rows or circles in the lunch container. A little creativity will make the lunch more fun and sensory, and get your child excited about packing their own beautiful lunch. Think of packing the lunch like arts & crafts time. :)
- Everyone loves a good lunch box and accessories. For something totally cool (and functional) get a Japanese-style bento box. This post has lots of good tips on brands and styles. And the blog Lunch in a Box has a TON of amazing tips on packing bento-style lunches.
- Variety! Don't pack the same thing everyday. Unless, of course, your child wants the same thing everyday, the way that kids sometimes do... I think I only alternated three types of sandwiches all through grade school: salami with mustard, peanut butter with honey, and smoked spicy turkey with Miracle Whip. It was weird and obsessive.
- Create healthy versions of what other kids may have. Things like nut/seed butter sandwiches of GF bread, kale chips instead of potato chips, homemade sweet potato fries instead of other fries, an homemade cookies or treats instead of vending machine candies will make your kid feel like "one of the gang" without compromising their diet.
Creating a Balanced Meal
It is important that your child have a balanced mix of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. Many kids love to load up on sweet things and carbs, but protein and fat play an equally important role. Don't be afraid to include avocado, nuts and seeds, healthy oils, full fat dairy (if you child is dairy-tolerant), and responsibly raised meats or seafood in their lunches. Fat and protein help increase satisfaction, stabilize blood sugar, and provide concentrated calories that will help your child sustain energy through the day and be focused on their studies and fun school activities! Let's break it down:
- cooked quinoa, millet, buckwheat, or rice
- gluten-free pasta (Tinkyada is excellent) in cold pasta salads or hot with sauces/pesto
- gluten-free brown rice tortillas (Food for Life is good) or corn tortillas (if your child can eat corn)
- homemade gluten-free breads or muffins, crackers, or rice cakes
- storebought gluten-free breads (I hear Udi's and Food For Life are good)
- starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, parsnips, or winter squash
- beans or legumes
- raw or roasted nuts or nut butter
- raw or roasted seeds or seed butter
- salad dressings made with olive, flax, pumpkin, or coconut oil
- organic butter or ghee on bread, crackers, or warm vegetables/pasta/grains
- beans or legumes in dips, soups, or salads
- nuts or seeds in trail mixes, granola, or plain
- nut or seed butter
- fish, poultry or meat in salads, sandwiches, wraps, soups, or casseroles
- jerky sticks or high quality sausages
protein-containing energy bars
Main Lunchbox Items
For increased satisfaction, it is good to have a main lunchbox feature that has a good balance of nutrition on its own. Add a serving of fresh seasonal fruit, raw vegetable sticks or a simple side salad, chilled roasted vegetables, or another side/snack item to these main options, and you have a satisfying and healthy meal.
- Rollups: these are fun, delicious, and totally versatile. Simply layer ingredients together, spread on dressings or sauces, and roll! This is very kid-friendly meal idea that they can do themselves. The best part is that the outside "roll" can be just about anything - gluten-free brown rice or corn tortilla, nori sheets, collard or lettuce leaves, rice paper, pancakes, crepes, or chickpea flatbreads, or whatever else you can think of! Ali recently wrote a great post about collard wraps.
- Grain-Free Sushi
- Turkey Nori Rolls with Mustard Tarragon Sauce
- high-quality sliced deli meats, pesto, Cashew Cheese
- Tuscan Chicken Liver Pate, Homemade Mustard, and sliced Pickle
- Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, White Bean Garlic Dip, or other bean dip, sliced avocado and cucumber, and shredded carrot
- nut/seed butter, sliced apples or bananas, raw honey, cinnamon
- crumbled ground meat, Turkey Fajita Hash, or sliced chicken or turkey, with lettuce, sprouts, and avocado
- canned tuna with cucumber, shredded carrot, and cilantro
- Chicken Artichoke Salad or Tuna Basil Lime Salad
- refried beans, shredded lettuce, sliced black olives, mashed avocado
- sticky brown rice, shredded carrot
- grass-fed beef hotdogs, homemade mustard, sauerkraut (if your child is particularly adventurous...)
- Sandwiches with any of the above ingredients on slices of Pumpkinseed Teff Sandwich Bread or Basic Coconut Flour bread
- Soups or Dals: Soup and dal is a wonderful option for children, especially in colder weather. Not only is it affordable, it is also versatile, because there are so many wonderful recipes for soup and dal out there! To pack, simply use a quality thermos to keep it warm. When packing dal, which is often served with rice, simply layer a scoop of warm cooked whole grains on the bottom of the thermos, then pour in dal, mixing up slightly, then sealing. You can also pack your favorite tortilla, homemade gluten-free pita bread, or slices of Besan Puda to eat with the soup or dal.
- Leftovers from dinner: Most things from dinner can be served for lunch the next day. Sliced roasted chicken or beef roast, chicken drumsticks, chilled roasted vegetables, leftover casseroles or savory pies (pack in a thermos to keep warm), gluten-free pizza
- Hot potato!: pack a cooked, split sweet potato or regular white potato in a large thermos, so it stays warm. Include a bit of organic ghee or butter, as well as various toppings in smaller containers that your child can stuff the potato with, such as...
- fresh herbs and Cashew Cheese,
- steamed broccoli and nitrate-free bacon
- black beans and salsa
- bean dip or refried beans
- anything else you can imagine!
- Breakfast for lunch:
- Sunny Quinoa Burgers,, Rutabaga Lentil Burgers, Herbed Turkey Meatballs, or other protein-rich burger with your favorite dipping sauce
- Grain-Free Sushi
- Cheat's Turkey Satay with Peanut-Free Satay Sauce
- Cracker sandwiches: grass-fed summer sausage or Chicken Liver Paté with gluten-free rice crackers and Cashew Cheese
Cold pasta, bean, or grain salads: Millet Tabouli with Red Pepper and Olives; Broccoli, Chickpea, and Pesto Pasta Salad; French Tuna Macaroni Salad; White Bean Salad with Peppers and Herbs; Summer Spaghetti with Cashew Alfredo
Side Items and Snacks
- Millet Tabouli, Quinoa Salad with Cucumber and Olives; Grain-Free Tabouli
- Cold sweet potato fries or sliced steamed sweet potato, Rutabaga Fries, Squash Fries, Turnip & Carrot Fries, or Roasted Vegetable Spears with homemade pestos or sauces for dipping
- Raw vegetable sticks with Beet Hummus, White Bean Garlic Dip, Pea Dip, or nut/seed butter
- Handful nuts or seeds mixed with dried fruit and allergy-friendly chocolate chips
- granola or nut-free trail mix
- Dates or figs
- Dried apple, mango, or pear slices, or natural fruit-leather
- Fresh seasonal fruit or fruit salad
- Simple greens salad with a small container of favorite salad dressing
- Flax Crackers with homemade guacamole
- Kale Chips or Toasted Nori Crisps
- Turkey Jerky or Beef Jerky
- Hardboiled eggs (chicken, duck, quail, etc) with sea salt and fresh or dried herbs
- LaraBars, Goji Berry Mesquite Energy Bars, AllerEnergy Nutrition Bars, or other allergy-friendly snack bar
homemade gluten-free, sugar-free muffins - some of my favorites are Wholegrain Buckwheat Yogurt MUffins, Applesauce Muffins with Currants and Goji Berries, Cinnamon Raisin Muffins, Cardamom Prune Teff Muffins, or Crunchy Millet Carrot Muffins
- Fresh, seasonal fruit: this is always the best choice!
- Black Bean Fudge, Fudge Sunny Bunnies, Coco-Choco Nests, Carob Crunchies
- Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
- Oatmeal Carrot Tea Biscuits
- Homemade cookies or bars - check out my Desserts & Sweets recipe index
- Homemade muffins or scones - check out my Baking recipe index
Fruit smoothie, packed in a thermos to keep cool
When I've had to feed children recently, I just think about what I'd like to eat, simplify it a little bit, and make it look cute, fanciful, and appealing. I am excited to have children of my own one day and pack them lunches.In the meantime, I try to make sure I have tasty food for myself, and like to feed my friends, family, and coworkers. Happy lunch-packing!