Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids: How to Pack a Brown Bag Lunch

by Ann Marie Michaels on February 13, 2009

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healthy lunch ideas for kids

Mothers are always looking for healthy lunch ideas. So I thought I’d share some kids lunch ideas with you.

I pack breakfast, lunch and a snack in my daughter’s diaper bag when she goes to “school”. We call it school but it’s really daycare — she’s not quite two years-old. It’s hard enough to come up with healthy recipes for kids — much less recipes for portable meals that can go in a lunch box or lunch sack.

Plus, most toddlers are picky eaters. You want to pack something they will actually eat — not leave sitting in their lunch box while they fill up on other kids’ Doritos and Oreos.

Here are a few tips on how to pack lunches for kids, with a list of ideas for healthy lunch ideas and lunch menus.

Tip # 1: Use stainless steel Thermos containers.
It’s important when you pack a lunch to make sure that the cold food stays cold and the hot food stays hot. You can use an insulated lunch bag. But if you don’t have one, any old lunch box or lunch sack will do. Whatever you choose for a lunch bag, what I really love, are stainless steel Thermos containers (pictured above).

These are wide mouth Thermos jars, so they’re easy to fill and clean. And the women at the daycare tell me that they are impressed that the food stays hot until lunch time. I really think a hot lunch is so much more satisfying than a cold one. And since my daughter is allergic to wheat and must stay gluten-free, we’re not really big on sandwiches.

I usually pack scrambled eggs or soaked oatmeal with butter and cream for my daughter for breakfast, and for lunch she often gets leftovers — rice and beans, risotto, chili, soup, stew, or what-have-you.

Tip # 2: Make sure they get enough fat.
Kids, especially toddlers need a lot of fat in their diet. Particularly saturated fat. This is what helps them feel full and nourished, and feeds their brains. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a toddler needs about 6 tablespoons of fat per day. (Source)

I have noticed that when my toddler doesn’t get enough fat, she is much more cranky and prone to meltdowns. A little butter or homemade ice cream and she’s back to her old self again.

I believe that when kids don’t get enough fat, that is when they really crave sugar and carbohydrates — like chips and cookies and juice. Pack a lunch laden with the healthy fat they need and they won’t be sneaking junk from their neighbor’s tray.

Here are some quick and easy ways to add fat to a school lunch:

  • Butter the bread and add homemade mayonnaise to sandwiches (I don’t recommend storebought mayonnaise because it is made with soybean or canola oil which are not healthy choices — better to make your own with real olive oil).
  • While you’re at it, add some avocado slices or bacon or cheese.
  • Use homemade mayonnaise for tunafish sandwiches, egg salad sandwiches, or chicken salad sandwiches.
  • If you do use peanut butter, make sure it’s organic and choose the one with added palm oil. Palm oil is a healthy, nourishing fat. You can find this variety at Whole Foods.
  • I have also found organic tater tots at Whole Foods made with palm oil. These could be easily warmed in the oven and added to a Thermos jar.
  • Add cream (preferably raw grass-fed cream) to soups and stews.
  • Homemade macaroni and cheese is a wonderfully satisfying dish that is extremely healthy if you use all natural, real ingredients like real grass-fed cheese, cream, and butter. (I recommend the rice pasta, since it’s lower in phytic acid.)
  • Risotto is one of my daughter’s favorite lunches. It’s full of butter, cream and cheese — and whatever else you add (she loves bacon or prosciutto).

Tip # 3: Don’t push vegetables unless your kids like them.
Sally Fallon Morell says that vegetables are a wonderful vehicle for good fats. People tend to get hung up on serving vegetables to kids because we’re told they are healthier.

But vegetables are not the most nutrient-dense foods. Most of the nutrients we really need come from fat soluble vitamins in meat, dairy and fish. I like to think of meat and dairy as concentrated vegetables.

Tip # 4: Skip the juice.
Juice is way too high in sugar and really shouldn’t be given to children. I always pack raw milk in my daughter’s sippy cup. Kefir is another good choice, or diluted kombucha or kefir soda pop.

Tip # 5: For something sweet, try fruit.
Most toddlers I know are crazy about raisins. Organic raisins make a great addition to a school lunch. Bananas are yummy, too, as are apples, pears, blueberries, and other fruits. My daughter loves dates rolled in grated coconut. Another good idea is whole milk yogurt with a little added maple syrup (I also like to add extra cream).

Healthy Lunch Ideas for Kids:

Sandwiches (Use sprouted bread; it’s more nutritious)
Egg salad (with homemade mayonnaise — never storebought!)
Tuna fish (with homemade mayonnaise)
Liverwurst or Braunschweiger on sprouted bread (with butter or homemade mayonnaise)
Bacon, lettuce & tomato on sprouted bread (with homemade mayonnaise)
Organic peanut butter with palm oil

Pasta (Use rice pasta or homemade sprouted flour pasta)
Homemade macaroni and cheese (baked in the oven, and then warmed in the morning)
Pasta with grass-fed meat sauce
Tuna casserole

Soups, Stews and Rice Dishes Made with Homemade Broth
Any soups made with homemade broth
Chili made with grass-fed beef, and topped with cheese and sour cream
White bean chili with chicken and cheese
Mexican rice & beans (cooked in broth)
Risotto

Other Ideas
Baked beans made with homemade broth and maple syrup
Organic tater tots with palm oil
Organic whole milk yogurt with added cream and maple syrup
Bananas fried in lard or bacon fat or coconut oil
Coconut flour blueberry muffins

Still need more inspiration? Here’s a great post from Kelly the Kitchen Kop with more healthy lunch ideas for kids: School Lunches – Healthy Alternatives.

Please share your ideas for healthy lunch ideas and tips in the comments below.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Alyss February 13, 2009 at 1:13 PM

I’ve been packing myself a lunch in my Laptop Lunchbox (www.laptoplunches.com) for close to three years now. I don’t make it 100% whole foods 100% of the time, but with my thoughts and beliefs on food I do a better job than some :)
You can see a photographic record of my lunches on my flickr site, here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/25518572@N00/
Lots of ideas on my photostream, and also in the “laptop lunches” pool that most of my photos are in. Many folks there are veggie, vegan or low fat, but it’s still fun to bounce ideas around with other folks :)
Happy lunchmaking!

Alyss’s last blog post..Mission: Yellow Curry PDX 003

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Ecala February 13, 2009 at 4:57 PM

Mmm.. will you pack my lunches too? :D

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Ecala February 13, 2009 at 5:07 PM

OMG Alyss! your lunches look fabulous! I want to mimic each and every one of them. Are those all your creations??

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Lauren February 13, 2009 at 5:48 PM

Hi Ann Marie, Those are some great ideas! How did you find out Kate is allergic to gluten? Did you ever end up trying the NAET for her food allergy? I keep my son away from gluten but I can’t say I know that he is allergic to it, I just keep it out since it won’t help his eczema (which is almost gone by the way).

Lauren

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Janja February 13, 2009 at 6:28 PM

I also like to make little baked meatballs and put those in thermoses (yup – those wide-mouthed stainless steel ones are the bomb!), as well as what we call “potato pancakes”. They are not crispy – I grate raw potato, add a little minced onion and mix in enough raw egg to make it sloppy, then fry little patties in butter and olive oil. They’re kind of like scrambled eggs, only with more body! A couple of those, plus meatballs and some homemade applesauce have been quite popular at my house! Your lunches look yummy – Miss Kate is a lucky little lady!

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Paula February 13, 2009 at 8:41 PM

OK, Where! did you find those thermos containers?
We are still making do with the old tall, has a narrow top thermos, that is 20+ years old (it is stainless). Stuff gets clogged in top all the time!
Paula

Paula’s last blog post..My latest adventure!

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cheeseslave February 14, 2009 at 4:24 AM

@ Alyss – I love your lunches! I always get so inspired looking at them.

@ Lauren – I’m not sure what is going on w/ Kate and gluten but whenever she eats it, her cheeks get all red and splotchy and she gets really cranky and starts throwing things. So we avoid it. We haven’t tried NAET yet. The closest practitioner is at least an hour away and I don’t have time right now in my schedule to be driving that far on a reg. basis. I’m going to keep giving her Biokult and bone broth and keep avoiding gluten and I think in time she will be able to eat it. If not, we’ll do NAET — and/or she will go back on GAPS.

@ Janja – That sounds DELISH!

@ Paula – I got the Thermos containers at Target.

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Erica February 14, 2009 at 6:09 AM

I’d love to pack things like meatballs in my son’s thermos, but is it safe to leave meat at a warm-ish temperature for several hours? I’ve always saved the thermos for less perishable things like rice and beans.

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cheeseslave February 14, 2009 at 7:01 AM

The food stays hot in a Thermos. What time do you pack it and what time does he eat? I normally pack my daughter’s lunch around 6-7 am and she eats around noon. They say her food is always hot when they open the Thermos.

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Lauren February 15, 2009 at 11:06 AM

Thanks Ann Marie, Cole would get those same streaks on his face when he would eat egg whites. I do a little test in which I put a little bit of raw egg white on his forehead and watch him for reactions every few months. He used to get marks all over his forehead, not just where I put the dot of egg white, but this last time only the spot turned red. I think this means his body is starting to mature and hopefully growing out of it. We shall see though. I truly do think our little ones are still young to be sure they have any of these allergies and by the time they are 3-5 should be able to tolerate these things.

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Julie February 15, 2009 at 4:34 PM

My kids are all grown up and out of the house now, but I wish I could magically go back in time and make lunches for them using the laptop lunch system.

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Jungleen February 16, 2009 at 1:03 PM

Hi Ann Marie,
I’m so glad you did a post about this! I was wondering what and how you packed Kate’s lunch each day! All great ideas. I’ve tried a lot of those things on your list for Noah, but he doesn’t like them (mac n’ cheese, chili, rice noodles, egg salad, beans). He is so darn picky and we haven’t introduced gluten yet. So I am always looking for IDEAS! I think the meatballs are a great idea too…

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Soli February 17, 2009 at 8:51 AM

Hi Anne Marie,

Thank you! I’ve been at a con all weekend and this is the first chance I have had to check in here. When I go food shopping next weekend I’ll pick up some sprouted bread and get to work experimenting. (and making mayo, yum!)

Soli’s last blog post..null

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Jeannine February 17, 2009 at 9:09 PM

Hi there! I think we used to be in a playgroup together (I have 19 month old twins), and I found your blog looking for real food recipes. Great content here!

I am so lucky that my two are great eaters, and there isn’t much I serve them that they don’t devour. Some of our favorite lunches include whole grain english muffin pizzas (each child gets one half the muffin topped with homemade sauce and lots of cheese), quesedillas made with TJ’s handmade tortillas, beans and more cheese (did I mention they love cheese?), nitrate-free hot dogs and baked beans, spinach ravioli with homade alfredo (lots of butter and cream), red beans and rice and “deli plates” with cold chicken, turkey or nitrate-free ham, cheese (yet again) and pickles. I also make them burgers from time to time.

They love fruit and eat it with every meal, so I try to have a nice variety. They also are suddenly into cherry tomatoes with homemade vinaigrette, since they swiped some from my plate. Oh and my son adores creamed spinach. He could eat it three times a day. I’d like to give them chilli or other soups/stews but they currently won’t allow me to feed them and they aren’t too good with spoons yet (although they both ate yogurt today and got most of it in their mouths – hooray!) Hopefully we’ll get there soon.

Thanks for the ideas.

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cheeseslave February 17, 2009 at 9:33 PM

Hi, Jeannine,

YAY — that is soooo cool that you found me!

How are you? Sounds like you’re doing good.

Are you still going to the Thurs playdate? I have been too busy unfortunately — and Kate is in daycare.

Let’s plan a playdate sometime — if you’re up for it, we’d love it! We could go meet at a playground. If you want to plan something, email me annmarie at realfoodmedia dot com.

Also, are you on Facebook? Going to go look for you…

Ann Marie

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Karen February 22, 2009 at 11:25 AM

Hi there! Was just out bloghopping and found this post. I am lucky, my toddler is not picky and I get to feed him at home most days. When we’re going to be out and about at lunchtime, I carry rice balls. I got the idea from a Japanese co-worked who would bring leftover rice, formed into small balls and rolled in sesame seeds or whatnot, for his lunch.

On nights when I make rice for dinner, I use the leftovers to make the balls while the rice is still warm: wet your hands, take a small lump of rice and (optional) press a piece of cooked fish or vegetable into the rice. Use your hands to form the rice into a ball or log, then roll it in toasted sesame seeds, or wrap it in seaweed (nori is fine, but my son prefers the Korean-style toasted seaweed). I think that these taste best at room temperature so I don’t put them in a cold pack, but if it you use fish and it will be more than 4 hours before they get eaten they should be kept cold.

If you don’t want to mess around with making balls, another method is to coat a small pan with sesame or other oil and press in a layer of rice ~1/2″ thick. Add a layer of filling (flaked fish, cooked spinach, etc) and cover with another layer of rice. Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top, cover the whole thing and chill it. In the morning, inver the pan onto a cutting board and cut into small pieces with a wet knife.

My son’s favorite combination is brown rice with salmon, rolled in a sesame seed & seaweed seasoning that I buy at an Asian market.

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cheeseslave February 22, 2009 at 2:03 PM

What a great idea, Karen! I love it! I think I will try this for my daughter, too!

One caution: You might want to check to make sure that seaweed seasoning does not contain MSG. MSG is *very* common at Asian food stores.

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Karen February 22, 2009 at 2:28 PM

Oh heck, I hadn’t thought about the MSG…just checked the label and sure enough, there it is :-( The roasted seaweed sheets are clean, though – just seaweed, salt, sesame and rapeseed oils. So I guess that i can snip the sheets into little bits and mix with sesame seeds, to approximate the commercially prepared seasoning.

Love your blog, and looking forward to catching up on old posts as well as forthcoming ones!

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cheeseslave February 22, 2009 at 3:07 PM

Hi, Karen, yeah I was so disappointed when I found out about all the MSG in Asian foods.

I used to always buy my husband his favorite seaweed salad, and I used to love the pickled cucumbers. But I don’t buy either of those things anymore now that I see that they have MSG.

I would avoid rapeseed oil. It’s likely to be genetically modified:

http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/crops/21.genetically_modified_rapeseed.html

I get this brand of nori, Eden Organic:

http://www.netgrocer.com/pd/Netgrocer.com/Eden/Sushi_Nori/0.60_oz/00024182157697/2D462

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Kelly A. April 30, 2009 at 2:07 PM

Just wanted to mention that I got some 365 brand Whole Foods tater tots recently (they were out for almost a month). I just noticed as I was putting them into the oven that they are now made with canola oil. :-( I wonder why the switch…. Maybe I’ll write them.

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Melanie June 25, 2009 at 7:40 AM

Meat as concentrated vegetables & fruit???? You are crazy! You need vegetables and fruit because meat, dairy and grains DO NOT contain all of the nutrients you need.

Also, palm oil is not a healthy source of fat. It contains saturated fat which wreaks havoc on your cholesterol levels.

I am a Dietitian and know this to be true, do your research and get educated before you make unsupported claims!

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Ara February 20, 2010 at 8:03 AM

I can say that a healthy lunch pack is also considering a healthy lunch box. Staying away from plastic bags would be a great idea. It’s much better that we also consider this stuff. Mostly plastic bags has BPA which can ruin our health as well as other harmful chemicals which can ruin our environment. It would be fantastic if we can go for green stuffs as well when we plan to prepare a healthy lunch idea. ;-)

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tabitha August 19, 2010 at 11:33 AM

you are offing vegetables?
are you kidding me?
meat does not contain nearly the nutritional value that veggies do
i think you need to read a little beyond weston price
you are setting your kid up for a heart attack

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cheeseslave August 19, 2010 at 3:39 PM

@Tabitha –

If that’s true, how come heart attacks were non-existent prior to 1900?

Go and read a cookbook from the 19th century — they used tons of lard, butter, and beef tallow. How come they weren’t dying like flies?

And what about the French paradox?

Watch the video below — it completely debunks the “saturated fat causes heart disease” theory:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8SSCNaaDcE

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Otelia Rosane September 26, 2010 at 6:48 AM

This is awesome. I love it!

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LED Torch December 3, 2010 at 11:04 PM

of the asian foods that i tastes, japanese foods and thai foods are the tastiest stuff :,-

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LeahS July 19, 2011 at 10:55 AM

I know sally fallon is not a big pusher of veggies but I do think that leafy greens are important for adults… I’m not sure though. Great list for kids lunches!

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I used to use an insulated lunch tote in which along with an
ice pack could actually keep things chilled all day long.

When It got a bit worn I got a brand-new one from Walmart but I am fortunate if it keeps things properly cold till lunchtime.

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