It’s not brain science, figuring out what to feed our kids for lunch. Except that, well, it is. Science tells us that what kids eat affects their brain and, by extension, their learning capacity. Today’s lunch boxes are like war zones — where the goodies kids want and the healthy fare parents want kids to eat battle it out — and the healthy food usually loses: the beloved “power bar” (aka candy bar in fiber drag) squashes the pear while pretzels poke holes in the forlorn sandwich.
“Eat your sandwich first,” you dutifully repeat every morning. But that’s not what happens. How many PB&Js can one child eat, anyway? And pushing that hormone-, antibiotic- and nitrate-rich lunch meat (aka processed meats like salami, bologna, turkey, bacon, or sausage, all of which are associated with diabetes and heart disease) doesn’t fulfill your goal of boosting your child’s brain power. Besides, after being twirled like a discus and tossed in a corner for several unrefrigerated hours, your child’s sandwich — far worse for wear — will likely end up in the compost bin.
So whether your child’s staging a noon-time hunger strike or simply trading healthy food for yummy junk, here are high-protein sandwich-alternatives that just might make the cut.
Eggheads: boiled eggs and salt
The idea is simple — probably too simple for parents with a taste for saucy concoctions. But many kids like simple. The boiled egg is one of the most resilient lunch box alternatives — sealed in its own natural, fun-to-crack packing. It also delivers excellent nutrients: 6 grams of protein per egg and plenty of brain-boosting choline.
To serve: Wrap an egg or two in a paper towel so they won’t get crushed and add a pinch or two of salt in a twist of paper for dipping.
Cheese and crackers lunchable
Make your own lunchable with your child’s favorite cheese, crackers, and baby tomatoes. These finger foods — which you should always pack separately — are great for squeamish kids who don’t like it when something moist (tomatoes or cheese) soggifies something dry (bread). It’s also easy to create variety by changing cheeses and crackers as your child’s taste buds mature.
To serve: Keep these ingredients separate either in baggies or in reusable containers.
Snack it up: beans, nuts, and seeds
Break away from the main-dish construct. Many kids prefer to snack and graze rather than eat a sandwich or other main dish, which is fine — just be sure to include plenty of nutritious foods in the mix.
Choose foods that pack a big protein punch and travel well: edamame (aka boiled soy beans, available in the frozen food aisle) have 14 grams of protein per 1/2 cup, garbanzo beans (available canned) have 7 grams of protein per ½ cup, peanuts have 17 grams of protein per ½ cup, pumpkin seeds have 37 grams of protein per ½ cup, and almonds and sun flower seeds both have 15 grams of protein per ½ cup.
To serve: Raisins complement nuts and seeds nicely; add a pinch of salt to edamame if your child likes salty snacks.
Keep it rolling: lavash and almond butter
Sometimes your child just wants something fun in her lunch box — and after a few years, the sandwich no longer cuts it (even if you cut off the crust). Plain lavash bread is simple enough for most kids to appreciate — and different from the same old slice. It’s also fun to play with! You can slather lavash with all sorts of ingredients — from hummus and tomatoes to peanut butter and honey. Almond butter with raisins is a nice, high-protein, low-sugar alternative your child may have never tasted before.
To serve: Rolling your lavash-and-spread concoction into a burrito makes for fun and easy eating.
Sticks ‘n mud: celery sticks and nut butter
Celery sticks are a rare lunch box treat that can survive being thrown across the playground, and still look and taste perfectly good. It’s also a great no-bread vehicle for familiar high-protein favorites like peanut butter, almond butter, and cream cheese. For the child whose imagination best whets the appetite, add raisins to make “ants on a log” or pieces of banana for “sleeping slugs.”
To serve: Baggies or waxed paper are just fine, but for lunch boxes that get hurled carelessly into a corner, bento-box-like reusable containers can better keep each log (and its ants) intact.
Stone soup: veggie soup
Some children find food a lot more interesting when it’s in a book than in a lunch box. If this is the case at your house, seduce your child’s taste buds with homemade Stone Soup, a simple vegetable soup (and wonderful children’s book) accessorized with a non-toxic rock! Make a big pot and freeze it in smaller containers, then warm it up and send it to school in a thermos. Add a whole grain roll for dipping — and for ladling out the stone to show off to friends.
To serve: A small red potato can be your “stone,” or pick a small rock from your garden (just be sure to scrub it clean and boil for at least 5 minutes). Steer clear of plastic “stones,” which can release toxins in hot soup.
Chili beans and tortilla chips
Beans are extremely nutritious, inexpensive, and hearty, but they’re not common lunch box fare. Try serving your child a thermos of hot beans seasoned with cumin, oregano, and a chug of chicken broth for an instant veggie chili.
To serve: Include a few tortilla chips for dipping or a wedge of cornbread to complete the meal.
Chew and crunch: turkey jerky and bread sticks
Some kids are grossed out by food that is moist, wet, ripe, or the least bit mushy — and the lunch box experience only makes matters worse. If this is the case, consider offering your child this dry alternative: turkey jerky and bread sticks. Admittedly, this lunch doesn’t have the nutritious elements of some of the homemade suggestions, but this duo of dessicated comestibles is a viable alternative for a persnickety eater.
To serve: Dried fruit (with no sugar added) rounds out this no-cook, no-fuss meal.
Old favorite, new color: green mac & cheese
Most kids love macaroni and cheese, that delightful marriage of carbs and fat, but if you want to make it healthier (and you know that whole wheat pasta and low-fat cheese ain’t gonna fly) try adding this innocuous little veggie to biggie up the nutrition. That’s right: peas. These legumes are a rich source of protein, and available year round in frozen form (which, surprisingly, is even more nutritious than fresh).
To serve: Add a handful of cooked peas at the last minute as you stir the cheese into the pasta.