Sending your kids off to school each day with lunch in hand takes more effort than meets the eye. “What’s the big deal?” a nonparent may ask. “Just throw a peanut butter sandwich in a brown bag and be done with it. Or give the kid a couple bucks for a cafeteria lunch and that’s that.”

But savvy moms know it’s a more complicated issue. Lunch is a crucially important meal for growing bodies, and it comes smack in the middle of the day, when kids’ brains are tired from a full morning of learning. Many school lunch programs are notoriously insufficient, nutritionally speaking, and kids get bored with brown-bagging the same things day in and day out. With no real supervision or accountability in the lunchroom, it’s impossible to know what healthful foods have actually made it into a kid’s mouth when the end-of-lunch bell rings.

Here are a few clever, easy ways to pack lunch for your kids like a pro, keeping them interested and intrigued about what they might find when they open their lunch boxes each day. (Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask you to sculpt your food into animals!)

Swap mini waffles for sandwich bread
The same old peanut butter and jelly or turkey and cheese sandwiches get new life when they’re prepared on mini waffles instead of sliced bread. There are a few great brands of organic whole-grain waffles in grocery stores’ freezer cases. Buy a box, stash it in your freezer and toast some for super cute kid-size sammies.

Make a “cheese plate”
Take a break from string cheese, and put a hunk or wedge of actual cheese (cave-aged Cheddar is usually a hit) in a container with crackers, nuts, carrot sticks, apple slices, olives, pickles (if your kids will eat them), salami, a little container of honey. This will make kids feel grown up and fancy, and in the process they’ll eat a balanced lunch without even noticing.

Sub yogurt tubes for dessert
Fruit-flavored yogurt tubes are loaded with protein and calcium, and contain far less sugar than a typical dessert. There’s something about squeezing yogurt out of a tube that kids love, so they’ll hardly miss the cookie or snack cake you’ve omitted. These can also be frozen, and should stay that way in an insulated lunch box, which makes for an exciting ice cream-like treat.

Get gourmet
Take a cue from your favorite hip restaurants and add special little touches to the old standbys. Give a swipe of maple syrup instead of jelly on PB&J, make avocado toast with a sprinkle of sea salt, buy a pack of nori sheets and create vegetarian sushi rolls, or use small potato rolls to make “sliders” with cheese, lunch meat, meatballs, or anything else your kid likes on a full-size sandwich.

Mix up your own trail mix
If you can get even just a handful of almonds, cashews or other nuts into your kid, you can rest assured that he or she has had some protein. Buy bulk nuts, dried fruit and coconut flakes and make a big batch of trail mix. You’ll save money, and your version will contain way less sugar than commercial brands.

Cute containers
Take one from the marketing companies’ playbook and step up your packaging game. These days, there are plenty of containers and other lunch wares plastered with the branded characters our kids love so much. Cucumber slices and hummus or leftover chicken and rice might be more appealing if they are packed in a Dory or Frozen cup. If you’re reluctant to buy more plastic containers, let your kids help decorate their plain lunch gear with their favorite stickers. Pick up a branded spoon and fork set and throw in a colorfully patterned napkin (Ikea makes great ones), and your kid will have a lunch that’s as fun to look at as it is to eat. Just don’t forget to put in a note that says, “I love you.”

What are your favorite lunchtime upgrades for kids? Let us know in the comments!


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