Every night before bed, Sue Patterson packs a lunch for her daughter, Emmy, 10, that resembles a work of art.
Picture a heart-shaped roast beef sandwich nestled into a Hello Kitty container with colorful cups of dried fruit, olives, organic cheese and yogurt-covered pretzels. Or a pink bento box with a California sushi roll, shelled edamame, red grapes and kiwis cut into cute fan shapes.
“It’s totally worth it so she can have a good, high-quality lunch every day,” Patterson says.
Not all healthy lunches have to be Pinterest-worthy. With a little planning and a fridge full of convenient kid-approved foods, parents can send their kids to school with a midday meal that’s as fun as it is nutritious.
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If your kids are picky eaters, get them involved in making their lunches, says Lily Siebert, education and outreach assistant at the Merc Co-Op in Lawrence, Kansas.
Siebert teaches monthly cooking classes for young chefs. One of her go-to recipes is a whole-grain wrap filled with hummus, vegetables and sunflower seeds.
She asks each student to choose three vegetables to put in their wraps.
“They’re more open to trying new things when they have control,” she says.
Chicken salad roll-ups
This fun alternative to the basic sandwich can also be made with hummus and shredded carrots. Recipe from “Weelicious Lunches” (HarperCollins).
1 cup chopped cooked chicken
2 celery stalks, diced
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 slices whole-wheat sandwich bread
In a bowl, combine the chicken, celery, mayonnaise, Dijon, lemon juice and salt and toss to mix well.
Using a rolling pin, roll the bread to 1/4-inch thick.
Spread 1/4 cup of the chicken salad mixture on each slice of bread and roll it up.
Tip: If you have younger kids, you can secure the roll-ups by gently putting a rubber band around them.
Per roll-up: 129 calories (30 percent from fat), 5 g total fat (1 g saturated), 18 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 352 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber.
Banana dog bites
These sweet sushi-style snacks pack a protein punch. Use whole-wheat tortillas for extra fiber.
Recipe from “Weelicious Lunches” (HarperCollins, $29.99, 320 pages).
2 tortillas (any variety)
1/4 cup nut butter (any kind)
2 bananas, peeled
Place one tortilla on a flat surface and spread 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on the tortilla to coat it evenly. (If your tortillas are stiff, put them in the microwave between 2 pieces of moist paper towel and heat for 15 to 20 seconds.)
Place 1 whole banana near the edge of the tortilla and roll it up. Slice the banana dog into 1/2-inch rounds. Repeat to make a second banana dog and serve.
Per serving: 267 calories (36% from fat), 11 g total fat (2 g sat.), no chol., 37 g carb., 8 g protein, 248 mg sodium, 3 g fiber.
Rainbows and butterflies pasta salad
This recipe calls for corn, edamame and red bell pepper, but you can swap in any combination of vegetables you or your kids like. Recipe from Foodnetwork.com.
8 ounces bow-tie pasta, preferably whole grain
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup corn kernels, thawed if frozen
1 cup shelled edamame, thawed if frozen
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
2 medium carrots, shredded (about 1/2 cup)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 ounce)
Cook the pasta as the label directs. Drain and toss with 1 teaspoon olive oil to prevent sticking; let cool.
In a large bowl, toss the cooled pasta with the corn, edamame, bell pepper and carrots. Drizzle with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil and toss to coat. Add the parmesan and 1/4 teaspoon salt; toss again and season to taste.
Per serving: 414 calories (33% from fat), 16 g total fat (3 g sat.), 5 mg chol., 57 g carb., 16 g protein, 137 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber
Red quinoa salad with black beans and avocado
Lily Siebert demonstrates this healthy recipe for kids who take cooking classes at the Merc Co-Op in Lawrence, Kan. She also packs it for lunch.
For the salad:
1 cup red quinoa
2 cups water
1/2 cup finely minced red onion
11/2 cups cooked black beans, rinsed and drained
1 fresh avocado, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup minced cilantro
For the dressing:
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons light tasting oil, such as safflower, canola or soybean oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Rinse quinoa well, then put it in a saucepan with 2 cups water and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). The quinoa is done when the grain appears soft and the red becomes translucent. The germ ring will be visible along the outside edge of the grain. Allow to cool to room temperature.
While quinoa is cooking, mix dressing ingredients together. Toss cooked quinoa with onion, black beans, avocado and cilantro.
Add dressing and toss until evenly distributed. Serve at room temperature.
Per serving: 267 calories (38 percent from fat), 12 g total fat (1 g saturated), no cholesterol, 34 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 279 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber.
Heart crispy treats
Makes 14 (2-inch) hearts
Cutting crispy treats into heart shapes makes them fun to look at and eat. Have leftover pieces? Just roll them into balls. Recipe from Weelicious.com.
4 cups organic crispy brown rice cereal
1 cup freeze-dried raspberries or strawberries (can be found at most health food stores)
1 cup brown rice syrup
1 cup smooth peanut butter (or any nut or seed butter)
In a large bowl, combine the brown rice cereal and the freeze-dried fruit.
In a large saucepan, heat brown rice syrup and peanut butter over low heat and whisk until melted and combined, about 2 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and pour over rice crisps in a large bowl.
Stir with a plastic spatula until completely combined. Pour into a greased 8-by-8-inch pan and press down to flatten the top. Cool for 5 minutes and then use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut into hearts.
Per heart: 231 calories (36 percent from fat), 10 g total fat (2 g saturated), no cholesterol, 34 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 170 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber.