Tips for Busy 4-H Parents: Out of the Box Lunch Ideas

lunch boxMaybe your child is too picky to eat school lunches on a regular basis, maybe they have food allergies, or you just want them to eat a little healthier. It could be that your family does not qualify for free or reduced lunch, but you would rather not spend $400-$500/year on school lunches. Whatever your reason for sending a school lunch, keeping it fun, fresh, and delicious can be a challenge.

It’s all about the box- Allow your child to select a lunch box that they like, and preferably one that is insulated. You might also want to invest in plastic containers in a variety of sizes. A thermos is also handy for hot soups and pastas. When selecting bottles for beverages, make sure they are easy to clean and if you plan on packing milk to drink, an insulated bottle or a bottle with a built in ice pack is a must.

Many children are obsessed with pre-packaged lunchables, but not only are they expensive, they are not really filling for most children and often high in sodium. Making your own lunchables at home is easy. All you need are some dishwasher safe plastic containers with individual compartments (readily available at grocery and big box stores) and some creativity. Involving your child in planning and packing their lunch will encourage them to try new things and also teach them responsibility.

10 Home-made Lunchables to Try:

  1. Basic- assortment of whole wheat crackers, cheese, and deli meats
  2. Sandwich bar- whole wheat slider roll, cheese, deli meats, and condiments (try hummus or pesto for something different). Children LOVE to create their own sandwiches!
  3. Sandwich on a stick- skewer cubed cheese, meat, bread, cherry tomatoes, and pickles onto a coffee stirrer.
  4. DIY Pizza- ½ English muffin, sauce, cheese, and mini turkey pepperoni
  5. Chicken Parm Sandwich- whole wheat roll, chicken tender, mozzarella slice, and marinara
  6. Mac and cheese muffins- add ham and broccoli to your favorite mac and cheese recipe. Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes. These freeze well.
  7. Sushi sandwich- whole wheat tortilla, layered with pesto, hummus, or other favorite condiment, and cheese and deli meat or left over rotisserie chicken. Roll up and slice into sushi rolls.
  8. Snack tray- pack an assortment of fruit, nuts, cheese, veggies, and crackers.
  9. Rice cakes with individual packs of cream cheese, hummus, or nut butters.
  10. Pizza calzones- flatten a canned biscuit, and spread marinara and cheese. Fold in half, and use a fork to crimp the edges shut. Bake at 350 on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper for 12-15 minutes. Serve with additional marinara for dipping.

 More tips:

  • Place purchased or homemade fruit cups in the freezer the night before. By lunch time, your child will have a frozen fruit slushy.
  • Dip sliced apples in pineapple juice to prevent browning- pineapple juice will not leave a bitter or sour aftertaste.
  • Spread a very light layer of whipped cream cheese on bread before making a mayonnaise based salad sandwich (such as tuna or chicken salad). The whipped cream cheese will prevent the sandwich from becoming soggy- a great tip if you make lunches the night before.
  • Substitute low fat vanilla yogurt for pudding. Add fresh fruit and granola for a “dessert” parfait.
  • Use cookie cutters to cut fruit and veggies into fun shapes for dipping.
  • Buy yogurt, canned fruit, pudding, and applesauce in larger containers, and then portion them out in re-useable ½ plastic containers. This can save you about 50% on individual size snack items and also will help reduce waste.
  • Have a theme for each day of the week:

o   Monday- Sandwich day

o   Tuesday- Wrap day

o   Wednesday- Dip day (hummus and veggies, salsa, bean dip, fruit dip)

o   Thursday- Salad day (fruit, pasta, chicken, or veggie salad)

o   Friday- Thermos day (hot soup, mini pasta with marinara, mac and cheese)

Lunch Box Pantry Staples (buy extra when on sale to keep in your pantry or freezer):

Carbohydrates: whole wheat crackers, tortillas, slider rolls, loaf bread, bagel thins, rice cakes, pretzels, and pasta in fun shapes

Protein– nut butters, ham, turkey, chicken, boiled eggs

Dairy– yogurt, cottage cheese, deli cheeses such as mozzarella, cheddar, and Muenster

Fruit– fresh, dried, and canned fruit for fruit cups, parfaits, trail mix, and granola. Purchase canned fruit in light syrups if possible.

Veggies– keep a variety of your child’s favorite veggies on hand. Don’t be afraid to sneak in new ones every now and then for them to try such as a slice of avocado or roasted red bell pepper on a sandwich or wrap.

Condiments– stock up on condiments such as mayo, mustard, ketchup, marinara, hummus, pesto, and tapenade.

Sweets– it’s okay to sneak in some sweets every now and then. Animal and graham crackers, mini marshmallows, puddings, and homemade cookies are all good alternatives.

We hope that these ideas will help you live a healthier life this coming school (and 4-H) year. As your family prepares for back to school, don’t forget that the 4-H year will be coming to a close at the end of this month. Enrollment in Florida 4-H beings August 23rd. To re-enroll, visit: http://florida.4honline.com or contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office.