Overwhelmed by how to pack a healthy, balanced lunch for your kids? This post will teach you the anatomy of a real food, kid-friendly lunch and provide healthy lunchbox ideas that your children will love, all without overdosing on sugar or junk food. We also share our top picks for easy, clean eating packaged foods and where to find them!
This post is sponsored by Health Warrior and Sprouts Farmers Market. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that make it possible for Root + Revel to provide free content and healthy living inspiration.
It's already back to school time–umm, when did that happen?!
While I don't have any kids of my own yet (though I am eight months pregnant and due mid-September!!), I know this is typically a stressful time of year for parents who are hustling to get school supplies, help with homework, coordinate extracurricular activities and–on top of everything–still get healthy, balanced meals and snacks on the table at least three times a day.
That's A LOT to think about!
Anything we can do to make our lives a bit easier without sacrificing quality or health is a win in my book, which is why today we're revealing our healthy lunchbox ideas for kids.
This post is intentionally not focused on specific recipes and meals to pack, but rather I want to empower you with an overall framework you can lean on day after day to ensure you're delivering a delicious, nutritious, kid-friendly lunch–all without slaving away your time and energy in the kitchen!
We'll also recommend some of our favorite healthy packaged products and top picks to make lunch packing a breeze.
Sound good? Let's go!
Healthy Lunchbox Ideas: Real Food for Real Kids
I'm assuming you're all about striving for real food since you're here at R+R, and unfortunately, so many kids packaged products (and adult products, for that matter) are filled with excessive amounts of sugar, preservatives, additives and all kinds of junk.
In fact, junk food has a myriad of negative consequences in children: it leads to increased obesity; smaller attention spans due to sugar spikes; increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease; nutritional deficiency and lack of energy, focus and concentration, to name a few. (source; source)
Providing our children with a real food diet is one of the best ways we can support them in living a healthy life, now and in the future.
So, without further ado, here's the framework of what to look for when building a healthy lunch for your kids:
- Healthy Protein: Protein is crucial for building and repairing tissues, making enzymes and hormones and is a key building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. However, conventionally raised meats are usually filled with antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, pesticides and other toxic ingredients that have detrimental impacts on our bodies (not to mention the environment and the animals themselves). When looking for healthy protein, you want to check for antibiotic-, hormone- and nitrate-free animal products and lunchmeat (organic is best when possible), or opt for plant-based options like beans, nuts and seeds.
- Fruits and Veggies: We all know the importance of fruit and veggies. Packing kid-approved fruits like berries, bananas, grapes, pears, peaches and apple slices is an easy option, or veggies like carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes with some healthier ranch dressing or hummus. You could also sneak veggies like zucchini or spinach into homemade muffins, making a big batch at once and freezing the extras for easy grab-and-go solutions. Some of my fave produce-based snacks are these No Bake 5-Ingredient Blueberry Energy Balls and these Blueberry Zucchini Muffins.
- I love shopping at Sprouts for their fresh, affordable and local produce. Sprouts focuses on local produce as much as possible, meaning anything that’s made or produced in that state or within 500 miles. Their prices are in line with mainstream grocery stores, and on top of that they have killer sales (at any given time, one-third of the store is on sale!).
- Grass-fed Dairy: Another great source of protein and healthy fats, dairy is often beloved by little ones. But again, you have to be careful with the source. We wrote an entire Guide to Healthy Dairy Products, but essentially, you want to look for organic, grass-fed, full-fat dairy. Yogurts and cheese sticks are a great healthy lunchbox idea!
- Healthier Chips and Snacks: What child doesn't love a nice crunch? There are so many kid snack foods out there, but what you want is a) short ingredient lists (like potato chips with just potatoes, oil and salt–not filled with artificial flavors and colors); b) organic, especially when it comes to high-risk GMO crops like corn used in corn chips, popcorn, etc.; and c) high quality ingredients. This means looking for either whole-grain (or gluten- or grain-free) and opting for healthier oils like avocado and coconut, not unhealthy artificial trans fats (vegetable, corn, cotton seed, soybean, canola and sunflower oils).
- Healthier Cookies and Desserts: A cookie is a cookie and, while not necessarily “healthy”, a little sweet indulgence every now and then is part of a balanced lifestyle. Plus, kids love dessert! For sweet treats, it's the same guidelines here as above, but with desserts, it's extra important to check out quality and quantity of sugar. You'd be shocked at the amount of sugar in most desserts if you look at the grams, and often times it's from super unhealthy sources like refined, highly processed and GMO ingredients, artificial sweeteners or harmful high fructose corn syrup. Instead, opt for natural and unrefined sugars like coconut sugar, dates, maple syrup, honey or, if you want to go the regular sugar route sometimes, make sure it's at least organic.
- Some of my go-to brands are Simple Mills for baked goods, and Wholesome for gummies like organic cinnamon bears and delish fish. My pregnancy has me craving all kinds of carbs these days, most recently a hankering for Oreos. Instead I went with Newman O's, which admittedly doesn't have super clean ingredients (at least they're made from organic flour and sugar) but hey, it's all about the 80-20 rule! Also, we haven't talked about drinks yet, but that's another sneaky realm filled with sugar-overload and artificial ingredients. Look for 100% real fruit juice, or swap soda for kombucha like my new favorite, Raw LIVE Soda from Doctor Kombucha.
- Healthy Snack Bars: Kids love snacks, so no matter the time of day, it's important to arm them with extra healthy options like high-quality snack bars full of protein and fiber that will keep them nourished and satisfied. Again, look for all the points mentioned above when buying kid-friendly protein bars; the amount of sugar in almost all bars on the market is outrageous, and we really want to be looking for natural, minimally-processed whole foods whenever possible.
- My latest fave healthy snack bars that are also kid-friendly are Health Warrior's Chia Bars made from 100% real food. It's hard to believe that these bars have only three grams of sugar–that's almost unheard of in this market and makes it an awesome choice to keep kid's sugar levels in check. All of Health Warrior's products have superfoods (like chia seeds) as the first and main ingredient, and they're also 100% plant-based and free of gluten, dairy, GMOs and soy. They're also only 100 calories each, which to be honest, I'm not a calorie counter, but I know some of you out there are and will appreciate that you can snack on a delicious, whole food bar with minimal calories. There are so many flavors–Acai Berry, Banana Nut, Apple Cinnamon, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Coconut, Caramel Sea Salt, Dark Chocolate, Dragon Fruit, Vanilla Almond and Dark Chocolate Cherry–that your children are bound to find a few flavors they love! You can buy Health Warrior's Chia Bars direct through their website (where they have a ‘best price guarantee') or at Sprouts (just 4/$5 for Chia Bars and 3/$5 for Pumpkin Seed Bars, everyday!).
Healthy Lunchbox Ideas: Where to Shop
One of my favorite places to shop for healthy foods is Sprouts Farmers Market. Everything mentioned in this post is sold at Sprouts, and it's an affordable option that will likely even save you money on your grocery bill. For all the reasons why I love Sprouts, tips for saving money and a downloadable shopping list, check out this post!
But here's the cliffnotes: To maximize your savings, Sprouts has weekly and monthly sale specials, plus their new app is awesome–you can add promo codes and digital coupons to your account and then simply scan at checkout to save even more. This is a great way to save on your kiddos favorite snacks and staples!
On top of that, Sprouts gives millions of dollars back every year into charities and community causes. One of their key partners is Real School Gardens, an organization that helps kids get healthier by developing in-school nutrition curriculums and building school gardens. I love getting to support amazing brands like Sprouts that, in turn, make a huge difference in the health and quality of life of children and those in need.
There we have it–healthy lunchbox ideas to keep your keeps happy and thriving!
Now, I'd love to hear from you: what are your go-to healthy lunchbox ideas for your kids? Share the wisdom by leaving a comment below!
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
Disclaimer: This post includes affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. Please note that I’ve linked to these products purely because I recommend them and they are from companies I trust. There is no additional cost to you.