Packing a lunch for your child -- or yourself -- is smart for both health and budgetary reasons. Don't be intimidated by fancy food photos of elegantly concocted lunchbox fare. Homemade lunches can be as easy to prepare as they are wholesome. If you want to get imaginative, tuck a handwritten note inside your child's lunchbox. It's as sweet as any artfully arranged salad or cookie-cutter-shaped sandwich any day.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are classic lunchbox fare for a very good reason. If you use whole-grain bread, natural peanut butter and whole fruit preserves, they're full of fiber, protein and vitamins. Add variety by using different nut butters, such as cashew or sunflower. Or include fresh fruit instead of preserves --- peanut butter and banana is always a winner, or try raisins or slices of fresh apple. Send along a crunchy vegetable, such as carrot and cucumber sticks as a side dish, perhaps with a small container of ranch dip to add flavor.
"Parents" magazine suggests a fun alternative to a sandwich: Roll up low-fat ham and Swiss cheese slices, then skewer with a pretzel stick. The magazine suggests mandarin orange segments and edamame --- whole boiled soybeans --- as accompaniments, but you can include any fruit that's in season, whole or sliced. Steamed snap peas and carrot sticks are other options.
If your child is the do-it-yourself kind or if she simply enjoys finger food, this meal is made for her. Cheese slices and whole-grain crackers let your little one assemble her own bite-sized lunch portions. Add grapes or berries for a finger-food--friendly accompaniment. Bell peppers or cherry tomatoes also pair well.
Combine cooked whole-wheat noodles with vegetables, such as cherry tomatoes, fresh or frozen peas, steamed broccoli and sliced red peppers. Toss in leftover diced chicken, canned tuna or cubes of feta or mozzarella cheese. Add a little lemon juice and olive oil, or use a light, flavorful salad dressing like ranch. All you need to complete this lunch is a small serving of fruit, such as diced melon.
Turn leftover homemade pizza from the night before into lunch. Make two pizzas if you need to be assured of extras for the next day, and make sure to pile on the vegetable toppings. If your child cringes at the thought of vegetable toppings, pair with a savory dip or sauce to make it more appealing. A whole wheat crust adds fiber and vitamins. For lunch, include a whole apple or a handful of strawberries to complete the meal.
The healthiest drink choice to accompany a homemade lunch is water. Send it along in a reusable metal container. Or pack 100 percent fruit juice if you like --- just keep in mind that whole fruit has more fiber and nutrients than juice, so don't skimp on fresh fruit in lieu of fruit juice.
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