Packing a lunch for your school-age children, your husband or yourself is healthy and cost effective.  Yet it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and pack the same meals day after day.  Here are some ideas to spice things up a bit:

First, invest in an insulated lunch bag, a few reusable ice packs and a small, good-quality thermos.  It’s difficult to keep food at a safe temperature when using a paper bag, and a good thermos can be used to pack hot or cold items.

Sandwiches are healthy and easy but can get boring. Try a different type of bread such as pumpernickel or rye, or a whole grain bagel, pita pocket, or wrap.  The new deli flats look like thin hamburger buns and have fewer calories than bread.  It’s best to avoid high fat lunch meat such as bologna or salami.  Lean ham, roast beef or turkey breast are healthier choices.  Instead of processed American cheese, try baby Swiss, cheddar or havarti.  Experiment with new spreads such as chipotle mayo, gourmet mustard, cranberry sauce or flavored cream cheese.

Peanut butter is always a favorite, but switch to natural peanut butter to avoid all the sugar and preservatives.  Experiment with several different brands to find one your child enjoys.  My family likes Peanut Butter and Co., available at many Wal-Mart stores in jars or handy squeeze packs.  Our favorite is Dark Chocolate Dreams (chocolate and peanut butter!).  We spread it on bananas, apples or graham crackers.  Instead of PB&J, try PB and honey, bananas, or molasses and wheat germ.  Another non-meat favorite in our family is cream cheese spread on raisin bread.

There are many alternatives to the traditional sandwich.  Make your own “Lunchables” by packing whole grain crackers and a variety of cheeses and lunch meats.  To surprise and delight a younger child, cut out shapes with a cookie cutter.  Hummus and pita chips won’t appeal to all children, but try serving it as an after-school snack first, and your child may surprise you by digging in.  On the weekend, make a big batch of pasta salad or a salad with quinoa, beans wild rice.  Divide them into lunch-sized portions in reusable containers.   You can buy pre-cooked, sliced chicken breast in the deli section.  Use it to add protein to salads.  Pack the dressing separately so it can be added before eating.

Pre-chill a small thermos in the freezer and fill it with yogurt and fresh or frozen fruit.  Put some granola in a separate bag or container for a parfait.  You can also fill a thermos with cottage cheese and canned or fresh peaches or pineapple.  For hot foods such as soup and macaroni and cheese, pre-heat the thermos by filling it with boiling water for a few minutes.

Be sure to include a fruit or vegetable.  Applesauce, grapes, kiwi, tangerines, clementines, bananas and apples are lunchbox-friendly.  So are baby carrots, celery sticks and red pepper slices.  A little low-fat Ranch dip may encourage your child to eat all the veggies.  Dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries, mango and blueberries can be mixed with nuts for added nutrition.

Add a few snacks in case your child gets hungry. Include easy-to-grab-before-recess items such as granola bars, fruit bars, whole grain or baked chips, a bag of mixed nuts and dried fruit, “go-gurt” or a an extra piece of fruit.

Don’t forget a drink.  Juice boxes and bottles are an easy way to provide your children with a serving of fruit.  Look for 100% juice and avoid sugary drinks such as sodas and Capri Sun type drinks.  You can freeze juice boxes or bottles and use them as cooler packs.  They’ll be thawed and ready to drink by lunchtime.

A treat now and then is a fun surprise. For healthy lunch boxes, dessert is best saved for an occasional treat.  A chocolate mint, mini candy bar, pudding cup, cookie or small brownie can be part of a balanced diet now and then.

Holy lunch boxes? A reminder that we are all children of God can be added to a lunch box.  Tuck in a holy card, Bible verse, patron saint medal, or a little note from Mom saying “I love you!  I’m praying for you.  God bless!”  Older children might enjoy a short biography of the Saint of the Day.  I like this link. You can print out bios and include them in their lunches now and then.

Hope that helps! Family Fun has some great ideas and recipes for lunch boxes.  You might also want to check out Cooking Light’s 22 Healthy Lunch Ideas. Some of them are a bit exotic, but there are some good suggestions if your child is not a picky eater.

Copyright 2011 Peggy Bowes