Fun and healthy lunches for kids

Posted: September 05, 2014

EVERY NIGHT before bed, Sue Patterson packs her 10-year-old daughter, Emmy, a lunch 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 Japanese-style bento box with a California sushi roll, shelled edamame, red grapes and kiwis cut into cute fan shapes.

Patterson's a big believer in eating healthy, organic food, so spending 15 to 20 minutes preparing her daughter's lunch is "totally worth it so she can have a good, high-quality lunch every day."

But a lunch doesn't have to be Pinterest-worthy to be healthy and fun. It just takes a little planning and a stock of convenient, kid-approved foods.

A great lunch begins with great ingredients, said Gary Hild, executive chef at the Culinary Center of Kansas City. "A sandwich is fine, but be sure to be a good label reader."

The chef recommends bread that says "100 percent whole wheat" on the label, mayonnaise made with olive oil, and sliced turkey or chicken that's free of fillers, such as gelatin.

Swap sandwich bread for a whole-wheat wrap and you can add in extra vegetables (shredded carrots, romaine lettuce or sliced bell peppers).

"You want to emphasize eating the rainbow," Hild said.

The only downside? Cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables can be time-consuming. Instead, shop at the salad bar of your grocery store or buy precut produce.

If your kids are picky eaters, get them involved in making their lunches, recommended Lily Siebert, education and outreach assistant at the Merc Co-op, in Lawrence, Kan.

One of her go-to recipes for kids is a whole-grain wrap filled with hummus, vegetables and sunflower seeds. Other Siebert faves include "energy balls" of peanut butter and crispy rice cereal, yogurt parfaits with fresh kiwi and mango, and quinoa salad with black beans, avocado and cilantro.

More tips from experts

_ Get into the habit of making too much dinner so that you'll have leftovers to pack for lunch, advises J.M. Hirsch in his book Beating the Lunch Box Blues (Rachael Ray Books/Atria 2013).

_ Make sure food is ready to eat - peel oranges and shell pistachios.

_ Jazz up peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with different types of bread and surprise fillings, such as coconut flakes.

_ Don't be afraid of the cold; pastas and whole grain salads taste great cold or at room temperature.

_ Two quick and easy recipes from Hirsch: Bake an egg in a muffin cup with a slice of deli ham to make a portable and protein-rich lunch. You can also fill frozen mini phyllo cups with yogurt and fruit. They'll thaw by lunchtime.

_ Mix mayo with Greek yogurt to make a tangy sandwich spread with more protein and less fat, Hild suggested.

_ Another idea from Beating the Lunch Box Blues: Skip the sandwich and pack a snackable spread of crackers, cheese, deli meat, hummus, peanut butter, jam and fruit.

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