Fresh Ideas for Lunchboxes from Far and Near

If you find it a challenge to put together school lunches that are appealing, easy to eat, and nutritious, you’re not alone. Whether your little one is at preschool twice a week or every day, you may find yourself running low on lunchbox inspiration from time to time!

A quick search on Pinterest and parenting blogs can bring up an endless stream of impressive (even intimidating) photos. Pinterest photos can make it look like lunchbox-packing is a competitive sport in America!  Don’t stress.  We’ve got some low-key ways to add interest to your child’s lunchbox, and some of these ideas come from our amigos around the world!

Lunchtime Around the Globe

Have you ever wondered what school lunches are like in Spanish-speaking countries?  We did a little research and found that in parts of Spain and Latin America, young school children sit down to a three-course meal with tablecloths and cutlery!  Teachers discourage parents from cutting up the food so children can learn to use their utensils confidently and build table manners. Lunch meals in Spain typically start with a salad (kids carry their own miniature olive oil bottles as dressing) or a cold soup, like gazpacho.  The second course might be paella, garbanzos, quinoa, a Spanish tortilla (potato and egg omelet), lentils, or corn. Dessert is typically fruit or yogurt.  Yum!

In Mexico, you might find kids spicing up their raw fruits and veggies with a sprinkle of chile, lime, and salt.  If your kids would like to try this, you can mix your own blend or buy a brand like “Tajín.” They can sprinkle it on mango, pineapple, papaya, melon, orange, grapefruit, cucumber, or jicama. Delicious!  

Mexican children bring lunch meals from home but they can also buy snacks from food vendors that are set up on the sidewalks outside schools.  These tienditas (little shops) offer fresh fruit and fruit juices called Aguas frescas, ice cream, popcorn with salsa, and hot snacks like elote. Elote is grilled street corn, topped with chili, cream, lime, mayonnaise, and fresh cheese.  If this sounds appealing, why not try slicing corn kernels into a cup and layering them with these condiments for a new lunchbox side dish? ¡ Qué rico!  

Simple Twists on Common Favorites

You don’t have to add international flair to your child’s lunch meal to make it interesting.  

How about an update on an old childhood favorite, “Ants on a Log”?  Instead of just raisins and peanut butter on celery sticks, here are a few new versions that work well in nut-free classrooms. Consider spreading celery sticks with the toppings below to make:

  •         Ants on a Ranch – cream cheese mixed with ranch dressing, topped with peas
  •         Berries on a Branch – cookie butter (Speculoos) and blueberries
  •         Ladybugs on a Log – strawberry cream cheese and dried cranberries
  •         Fish in a Stream – hummus and goldfish pretzels

Make-ahead, kid-pleasing dishes called “muffin tin meals” are just the right size for little hands. You’ll find recipes online for pizza bites, mac and cheese “muffins”, or tiny quiches that are delightful additions to any lunchbox!

Even basic lunch items prepared together can make them more appealing.  Dust off those cookie cutters and let your child stamp away on bread, cheese slices, and deli meats to turn them into hearts, stars, moons, and flowers. Cookie cutters also work well on sliced fruit (think of apple, pineapple, and watermelon slices in the “Edible Arrangements” fruit bouquets).

For fresh desserts that are healthier than packaged pudding, there are lots of easy recipes for chia puddings that you simply mix and refrigerate the night before (with as few as two ingredients!).

Food for Thought

If you’re still short on time or creativity, or you have a child who just loves the consistency of the same daily favorites, you can always include a giggle or a hug in a lunchbox!   We found many pages of printable notes online so you can send jokes, riddles, and words of encouragement that are sure to bring a smile to your little one’s face.  Click here for a collection of links, and here for some that are perfect for pre-readers.

Remember, lunch-packing is not an Olympic sport!  The goal is for kids to have a satisfying meal that fills their tummies and renews their energy and focus.  The most important lunchbox contents are balanced nutrition, favorite foods, and love!