In the midst of trying to enjoy the last few days of summer, sorting class schedules, planning extracurricular activities and shopping for school supplies, there’s a chance you haven’t even started thinking about what you’ll be packing your kid’s lunchbox with.
One of the best ways to slip into the new school year is to pack more plants into every meal. Start with a nutritious breakfast at home and send your child to school with a homemade, balanced lunch since school cafeteria lunches rarely offer healthy options.
To nourish and energize your family, kick off the upcoming school year with these 10 simple tips:
1. Keep it pure, not processed
Whole fruits and vegetables from your local grocery store are ideal foods to feed your kiddos. Avoid packaged foods, including boxed cereals, with preservatives, refined oils, coloring, added sugar and any chemical ingredients you can’t pronounce.
2. Simple swaps for sandwiches, salads and soups
Replace unhealthy ingredients in these lunchbox faves with better-for-you alternatives! Instead of mayo, spread protein-rich hummus on your child’s sandwich bread. If you’re feeling really sly, you can sneak in some tomatoes and lettuce, too! For salads, add chopped avocado or homemade tahini sauce instead of a dairy-laden store-bought dressing.
When sending your son or daughter with soup, opt for black beans and brown rice or a lentil soup, which contain plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals, instead of one that contains processed meat. According to Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, these plant-based options are better for heart health along with reducing the rates of cancer and childhood diabetes.
3. Let kids be a part of the process
When children are a part of choosing the fruits and veggies they get to eat each week, chances are they’ll be more likely to eat these foods when served. Let your kids choose what color apples they prefer to munch on. When there are local options, tell them about it; it might intrigue them to know the apples came from a local farm.
Give your child options. Let them choose whether they’d like to snack on broccoli and carrots or celery and baby tomatoes. This exposes kids to the different colors and foods available in the produce section. Plus, they’ll love that they get a say in what you’re packing!
4. Serve familiar foods with a healthy twist
Most kids enjoy some variation of nut butter and jelly sandwiches, along with easy snacks like pretzels, chips and ants on a log. So why not make these foods with healthier ingredients?
Swap sugary peanut butter and jam for ones free of added sweeteners and hydrogenated oils. Look for natural, organic peanut butter and jam sweetened with real fruit (bye-bye high fructose corn syrup!). Spread ‘em on whole grain bread (or whole grain gluten-free bread) instead of other types of loaves made with refined, enriched flour.
Water is virtually tasteless. It’s fair to expect kids to drink less water than you’d like. Make it fun and flavorful by adding colorful fruit to their glass. Blueberries, lemons, limes, strawberries, cucumbers and melons add way more excitement to your kid’s drink in addition to antioxidants.
Pour it in a stainless steel container they can tote to school with them.
6. Don’t store fruits and veggies in the produce drawer
Keep fresh fruit and pre-cut, bright colorful veggies front and center in the fridge so you and your kids will actually eat them. No one remembers (or often desires) to remove produce from the bin, wash and chop it before eating. Grab and go is the way to go!
When kids have access to easy-to-reach ingredients, breakfast goes much smoother as does lunch-packing time. This is a great tip for adults too, by the way!
7. Get creative with breakfast
Since you’re already off packaged foods, it’s best to let your child’s creativity shine come breakfast time. Give them options when it comes to food prep. Allow them to choose whether they want to top their oats with raisins, sliced bananas, sliced almonds, walnuts and/or cinnamon. Nut allergies? No problem. Offer omega-3-rich and fiber-rich ground flaxseed.
8. Be gluten-free smart
Perhaps your child has a gluten sensitivity or has celiac disease, or you just don’t feel comfortable giving them gluten. That’s OK because there are plenty of other whole grain, nutritious options they can enjoy without relying on gluten-containing grains or gluten-free products.
Most gluten-free products on the market are incredibly high in refined flours, unhealthy, refined starches, refined oils and added sugars.
Kids (and adults) on gluten-free diets are much better off enjoying whole grain rice products, gluten-free oat products and other options like quinoa, millet and buckwheat. If your family is a fan of grits, cook up some buckwheat cereal instead.
9. Choose a different milk
Instead of bottled dairy milk products, which are typically offered at schools), choose a non-dairy alternative. Dairy milk has been shown to increase the rates of early menses among young girls, it can also alter children’s hormones, and increase their risk for cancer and diabetes, according to PCRM.org.
Miniature bottles of almond, soy, rice and coconut milk are available in juice-box-like packaging, and most of them are low in sugar or come in unsweetened varieties. And there’s no need for refrigeration! Kids can take these portable drinks to school for a convenient, better-for-you beverage to sip on!
10. Ensure your child’s calcium, vitamin D & B12 levels are adequate
Whether your children are vegan or not, there are some great ways to help your children benefit from the intake of more plant-based foods. Start with their supplement routine and make sure they’re getting the best sources of certain nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
Calcium is easy to obtain on a plant-based diet and these sources provide other valuable nutrients important to children. Some of the best sources of non-dairy calcium include fortified non-dairy milk (see No. 9), oranges, greens such as kale and collards (easy to sneak in soups and wraps!), dried figs and tempeh, a tasty alternative to meat that comes from whole soybeans. Almonds, tahini, Brussels sprouts, various beans and broccoli are also great sources of calcium, too.
Vitamin D is best obtained through fresh sunlight daily, so try to make sure children get daily sunshine exposure. An hour of playtime after school or before dinner is a great way to achieve this—especially if kids aren’t given a play time at school or don’t have an afterschool activity
You can easily find vitamin D in plant-based multivitamins for kids as well as vitamin B12.
This vitamin comes from bacteria in soil, not from animals or plants. The best way for children to get enough is to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Looking to up their iron intake? Opt for beans, peas, lentils, whole grains such as oat and quinoa and nuts and seeds such as pumpkin, hemp and chia seeds. Add these foods throughout the day from breakfast to lunch.
Healthier lifestyles require a few simple changes throughout the day. When it comes to making these change, plants are extremely powerful. So start the new school year off on a new foot, and see how easy it is to help your kids eat healthier just by focusing on whole, plant-based foods!