More than five years of packing lunches quickly teaches you survival-of-the-fittest methods. I’ve learned how to create a healthy bento box lunch for my kids that they’ll actually eat (and get them out the door before missing carpool or the bus). For me, it’s important to pack foods with a variety of nutrients, textures and flavors. But it can’t just be healthy—my girls are selective about the foods they eat and I want them to look forward to lunch. If I don’t take just a few extra minutes to plan and prep, our weekday mornings quickly turn to chaos.
Related: Our Top Healthy Kids’ Lunch Ideas for School
It doesn’t always work out perfectly. I’d be lying if I said that I never take shortcuts when I’m too tired to chop veggies. Sometimes I run out of groceries and have to get creative. But by following the same simple formula, I’ve taken quite a bit of guesswork and stress out of packing lunches.
Before you start packing, ask yourself:
• Can lunches be refrigerated or do you rely on an ice pack to keep them cool?
• Is there an option to reheat the food or does it have to be eaten cold or at room temperature?
• Does your child mind eating traditionally warm foods cold or at room temperature?
• Does the school have an allergy policy (such as peanut- and tree-nut-free)?
• Are any foods more of a struggle to eat than others? (For my girls, protein-rich foods and vegetables are the firsts to come back uneaten.)
Here’s how I like to create a healthy lunchbox that my children will eat:
1. Pick a Protein
Pictured: Taco Salad Bento Box
Protein can be found in many foods, so don’t feel limited to deli meat. While using low-sodium deli meat for sandwiches and roll-ups is always a delicious option, consider other proteins, such as milk, grilled or baked chicken or turkey, lean beef or pork, yogurt, cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and plant proteins, such as nut and seed butters and pulses, which include lentils, chickpeas, beans and peas.
2. Pick a Vegetable and a Dip
Pictured: Rainbow Bento Box
Nine times out of ten, if there is a vegetable in our lunchboxes, there is also a dip to accompany it. Don’t shy away from dips (even if that means ranch dressing!) if it will serve as a vehicle to get the veggie eaten. Classics include carrot sticks (we love rainbow carrots), celery sticks, cucumber rounds, salt-free canned green beans, cherry tomatoes and broccoli paired with ranch, guacamole, salsa, hummus or ketchup. You can also do a deeper dive into veggies and try new and seasonal raw or roasted ones, such as okra, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, radishes, squash, sweet potatoes and beets, as well as working chopped vegetables into grains or onto sandwiches.
3. Pick a Fruit
Pictured: Breakfast Bento Box
From sliced apples to kiwi to grapes to watermelon, fruit is always a favorite. I like fruit because it serves multiple purposes. Of course it offers nutrition, but it also rehydrates and fulfills a sweet craving.
4. Pick an Extra
Pictured: Pizza Roll-Up Bento Lunch
Our extras usually fall somewhere in line with either a salty snack or a sweet dessert. Chips and cookies aren’t an everyday occurrence in our lunchboxes and I’ve found that they don’t have to be when other delicious foods are offered. My girls love air-popped popcorn for something salty and crunchy, and a mix of dried cranberries and dark chocolate chips for a sweet treat.
With just a little bit of planning and prep work, packing a healthy bento box for your kids that they will actually eat can be both doable and fun. And, of course, don’t forget to let your kids help you plan, prep, shop and assemble, because before you know it, they’ll be able to make their own lunch and you’ll be off duty.
Related: EatingWell’s Healthy Back-to-School Guide
Holley Grainger, M.S., R.D. is a culinary nutrition and lifestyle expert and the “Mommy Dietitian in the Kitchen” who instructs families on how to make practical, doable and delicious meals.