Making a healthy school lunch for your child every day—one he will actually eat—can be a tall order. Before pulling the covers over your head and wishing it were summer vacation, or at the very least Saturday, take some advice from experts who’ve been there, done that, and delivered some pretty amazing food along the way.

Arguing the Case for a Good Lunch, Layer by Layer

“Applying the principles of good lunchmaking now will have a big impact later when they go out on their own,” says Laura Pasetta, a health and nutrition expert. She notices her own teenage daughters making better food choices, a behavior she attributes to what she packed in their lunches starting back in kindergarten. “There’s the opportunity to teach them the fundamentals of nutrition, which is something cafeteria lunches seldom provide—not to mention the huge amount of money you save by making lunches at home vs. buying them.”

Pasetta, who demonstrates how to make lunches in her DVD The Visual Guide: How To Make a Healthy Lunch for Kids, says there are seven steps, or “layers” as she calls them, to the art of successful lunchmaking. It starts with a theme, for example Mexican fiesta, Asian, or Italian, and then the theme is built upon in the lunch. Presentation is key, especially with young kids. It could be something as simple as including a paper napkin with a child’s favorite character on it. Pasetta has gone so far as to include place mats tied to the day’s theme in her children’s lunches. Using a fun yet practical lunch container is also important, and something the child can choose. Food, of course, is always the main event, and Pasetta makes sure to include a substantial main course, a vegetable, a fruit, a beverage, and a snack.

“Hands-on” Wins, Hands Down

Kiersten Firquain of Kansas City, Mo., is quite familiar with serving healthy lunches to school-age kids. Known as “Chef K,” she started her company, Bistro Kids, after becoming dissatisfied with what her own son was eating at school. Through the Bistro Kids Farm 2 School lunch program, Firquain partners with local farmers and food producers to provide kid-friendly, all-natural, fresh meals. “Nutrition education is a big part of our program, and it really facilitates healthy eating choices in kids,” she says. Toward that end, her company ensures that each school it services has a garden. Bistro Kids also provides cooking classes and field trips so students can really experience the food they eat, where it came from, and how it’s prepared.

It’s an odd phenomenon, but as an example kids who wouldn’t touch store-bought tomatoes suddenly can’t get enough of the fruit when they grow or at least pick some themselves. You’ll find this hands-on experience extends itself to many other kinds of fruits and vegetables and opens up a world of healthy and diverse eating. “Take them to a farm...or at least a farmers market if it’s not practical to start your own garden...and buy what’s seasonal,” Pasetta says. “It helps keep things interesting. I’ve turned my daughters on to passion fruit and kumquats!”

The Nuts and Bolts of a Healthy Lunch

So you’ve chosen a theme, found an appealing lunch container, and shopped for fresh produce. Now it’s your job to fill the container...but with what, exactly? Former Marriott food service professional and mother of two Christine Nichols says any kind of tortilla roll-up is fun. Her middle school twins like whole-wheat tortillas filled with cream cheese and dill pickles. If she’s in a hurry, she’ll heat up premade organic bean and cheese burritos, which she buys at a big-box store. She then wraps them in foil and tucks them in her kids’ lunch boxes. She’s also found that salads are a big hit—she often makes a pasta salad, adding either tuna or wild canned salmon. Another winner is orzo pasta salad with feta cheese.

Interestingly enough, Firquain reports that the highest days of student participation in her school lunch delivery program are the ones designated as “salad bar” days. The takeaway from this is, yes, kids actually will eat salad! Just make sure you pack it in a well-insulated lunch box, preferably one with an insert for a small ice pack.

For Nichols, fresh fruits and vegetables are high on her lunch box list. She likes to drop in clementines (a variety of mandarin orange) because they’re easy to handle and peel. Pasetta also has strong opinions on the size of food items. “Keep in mind, really young children probably can’t handle a big apple...especially if they’re missing a few front teeth! Cut it into fun shapes instead, sprinkling them with a little lemon juice to prevent browning,” she says. Another idea is to string grapes on a piece of dental floss so it’s like a little bracelet or necklace. For even more fun, alternate red and green grapes. “My girls would gobble up the grapes and then floss their teeth!”

While fruits are generally easy to successfully incorporate into a school lunch, vegetables can be a little trickier and you may have to sneak them in. Pasetta confesses to slipping corn into a quesadilla on one of her Mexican theme days. Chopped up red or green peppers work well, too.

Not a Minute To Spare

If you’re thinking a peanut butter sandwich is about all you can muster in what little time you have to prepare lunches, take inspiration from Pasetta. She claims it takes her only 15 minutes at most to make two full lunches first thing in the morning or, alternately, pack the bulk of them at night and throw in anything more perishable in the morning. How does she do it? She credits organization. “Part of my pantry is the ‘lunch pantry,’ and it’s got everything in it. It’s got plastic forks, napkins, lunch pails, Thermoses—everything is stored in there. So I go there for everything, pull it out, make the lunch, put it back.” She also relies on a chalkboard to sketch out a week’s worth of ideas, and of course she shops ahead and stocks all the food supplies.

Fresh...and Not out of Ideas

Next time you’re stuck for lunch menus, pay close attention when you go out to eat as a family. Notice what kinds of foods your kids gravitate toward, what they order, and especially what they ask NOT to have on their food. As Pasetta says, there’s “nothing worse than to keep putting pickles in their [lunch box] sandwich when it turns out they don’t even like pickles!”

Communication, a little creativity, and a good dollop of organization will go a long way toward making lunch time a successful endeavor for all.

Editor's note: Have you had success with school lunch ideas? If so, send us your recipes and we'll include them in our new School Family Recipe Share!

The following recipes are courtesy of Laura Pasetta

Chicken Salad Wrap

Makes 2-3 wraps


Ingredients

2 medium flour tortillas

2 chicken breasts, diced

1/4 cup red and yellow bell peppers, diced

1 small celery stalk, diced

1/4 cup Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese, diced small

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1 tablespoon plain yogurt

Salt and pepper to taste

In medium bowl, combine the chicken, bell peppers, celery, cheese, mayonnaise, and yogurt and mix well. Salt and pepper to taste.

Lightly warm each tortilla for easier handling and to prevent the tortilla from cracking. Place 1 cup of filling on the bottom half of the tortilla, then fold the right and left edges of the tortilla over the filling toward the center. Fold the bottom edge of the tortilla toward the center and gently roll until the tortilla is completely wrapped around the filling.

 

Fresh Raspberries and Peanut Butter Sandwich

This delicious, very berry sandwich even appeals to kids who won’t ordinarily eat a regular PB&J.

Makes 2 servings


Ingredients

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

2 tablespoons raspberry jam, 100 percent pure fruit

1/2 teaspoon maple syrup, 100 percent pure

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup fresh raspberries

4 slices whole-wheat bread

Mix together peanut butter, syrup, vanilla, and raspberry jam until well blended.

Spread the mixture onto two pieces of bread.

Press the fresh raspberries into the spread.

Press the sandwich gently together.

Variations: Try using other types of nut butters, such as almond or cashew, or mix in cream cheese to give the recipe a creamier flavor.


Asian Confetti Rice

Chopsticks or not, this is a fun way to eat lunch with an Asian flair! Incorporate more whole grains into your child’s diet with this clever brown rice recipe that won’t disappoint! Note: Use leftover cooked rice to save time.

Makes 4 servings


Ingredients

2 cups brown or white rice, cooked

1/2 cup onions, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup red bell pepper, diced

1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil

1/4 cup water

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1/4 cup soybeans (edamame), shelled and frozen

1/4 cup corn, frozen

2 shiitake mushrooms, finely chopped


Dressing

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon roasted sesame oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon ginger, powdered

 

If making rice fresh, rinse 1 cup uncooked brown jasmine rice. Add rinsed rice to 2 1/4 cups water and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and let simmer for 45 minutes until the water is absorbed.

In a skillet, sauté the onions, garlic, bell peppers, and sesame oil on medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until tender.

Add in water, soy sauce, soybeans, corn, and mushrooms and cook until tender.

To make the dressing, in a separate bowl mix the soy sauce, sesame oil, lemon juice, and ginger.

Remove the vegetables from heat. Toss in the rice and mix well. Add dressing to the rice and vegetables and mix together. The rice dish can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Variations: Give this recipe a Thai flavor by adding in 1/4 cup roasted peanuts and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint. Chicken, shrimp, or pan-fried firm tofu cubes also make delicious additions.


Freelance writer June Allan Corrigan is a mother of two and a former kindergarten teacher who still substitutes on occasion. She resides with her family in La Quinta, Calif.