Ah, back-to-school season is upon us. While my 3-year-old is super excited to pick out his very first back pack, my 5-year-old is already head-over-heels about getting to stay every day for lunch. His excitement spills over into our grocery shopping when he's begging me to buy Lunchables because "that's what the other kids get!"
So my goal this summer has been to create quick and easy homemade versions of (most) of the typical kid lunch foods, like Lunchables, fruit snacks and Fruit Roll-Ups. We've had some big wins this summer (like the fruit leathers), and some major flops. So, I'm here to share some fun ideas to spice up the kids' lunches and some of my favorite products that help make packing nutritious lunches a cinch! With the following suggestions, remember what makes lunch fun for kids: familiar foods with variety and color -- keep these three things as pillars of the lunch and you'll win the kids over in no time.
First up, fruit leathers! I was flabbergasted when my son was introduced to Fruit Roll-Ups when he was only 3. I wasn't surprised when he loved it and started begging for more, so I rolled up my sleeves to make an all-natural version that I could feel good about. Yes, they do sell healthier fruit leathers in the store but they're pricey. What I love about this recipe is that you can use any fruit or fruit combination you have in your fridge or freezer. To prep for the winter when fruits are pricier, you can start stocking up now and freezing the fresh fruit.
100% Real Fruit Strawberry Leathers
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees or as low as it can go. Next, lay a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet and spray with Pam or lightly rub with vegetable oil to prevent sticking.
In a blender or food processor, purée your strawberries. Some fruits work best if they're stewed first. Note, some recipes call for honey or agave nectar at this point. If you taste-test your purée and you question its sweetness, remember that as the fruit dries, its natural sugars will concentrate and sweeten.
Spread your purée evenly over the baking sheet. Typically, about 1¼ cup of purée is enough for one baking sheet. Your fruit leathers are done when they're no longer sticky to the touch -- typically 5-8 hours depending on the fruit you choose.
• Fun strawberry facts: Strawberries are the only fruit with seeds on the outside, they're a member of the rose family, and they're the first fruit to ripen in the spring! Plus, they're high in vitamin C, fiber and folic acid.
Next up, homemade Lunchables! My 5-year-old begs for these every time we go to the grocery store so I've done my research to really get a good supply in my arsenal before school starts. Having a good separated container is the first step in re-creating this popular kids lunch. Check out my "lunch box essentials" below for my favorite containers.
When I was building my supply of ideas this summer, I came across the most brilliant site that took so much of the work out of it for me: momables.com. MOMables helps parents make nutritious lunches in 10 minutes or less -- I've tried it, it's true and it's a lifesaver!
"Parents often think that kids want boxed lunches because they actually taste good," said Laura Fuentes, Chief MOM at MOMables, "when in truth, kids want to fit in and eat what everyone else is doing. By taking a little time to prep some homemade versions of popular boxed lunches and snacks, you can be feeding your child highly superior food packed with nutrition."
Strawberry Shortcake Wafflewich
1 tablespoon cream cheese
2-3 sliced strawberries
Two whole grain waffles
Spread cream cheese on one side of both waffles, place strawberries over cream cheese and sandwich together.
Serve with a side of fresh fruit, veggies and treat of choice.
Put all of this in a separated container and it's JUST LIKE a Lunchable! But you can feel better about the nutrition your child is ingesting!
If you're interested in MOMables, you can either sign up for their newsletter and get free ideas to keep your creative juices flowing or you can sign up for their member access where they send you a weekly menu with grocery list. Both options serve as a great resource for busy parents packing lunches!
• Norpro Silicone Ice Pop Makers. These silicone ice pop makers make sending smoothies to school a cinch without having to take up space with a bulky Thermos.
• Cookie cutters. If your kids are still younger, don't underestimate how simply cutting a sandwich into a fun shape is a super fun surprise for the kids and makes eating a normal healthy sandwich that much more fun.
• Ziploc divided containers or Bento lunchboxes. The main idea is finding a lunch box with an easy system to divide the food and make it more appealing. Bento boxes are awesome because they're really easy for kids to open, but they're not necessarily leakproof. Ziploc on the other hand is leakproof.
• Silicone Muffin Cups. These may seem frivolous, but it's a fun way to separate foods like granola or sliced veggies or sending homemade muffins while still adding a fun color to the lunch.
I hope this helps get you and your kids off to a fun and delicious start to school!
Contact me: If you have any feedback, comments or questions on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you! You can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
• Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, nourishedliving.com. She lives with her husband and three young sons in the Northwest suburbs.