Back to school – top tips for lunch from a gastroenterologist 

School is back in session! As parents, we want to ensure that our kids are getting the best fuel for their growing minds while also maintaining a healthy gut, especially as they get back into the classroom routine. A healthy gut and full stomach are key to setting your kids up for success in their new school year. We want to ensure they are comfortable, healthy, and ready to learn as they settle back in. Helping your child to build a robust gut microbiome is critical to their development, mental and physical resilience, and decreases their risk of digestive and other health issues. All of this will allow them to focus on learning instead of on stomach discomfort.

It seems much easier to pull whole foods from your refrigerator and serve them while your kids are home for the summer, and can feel like a whole new challenge to figure out what to send to school for lunch. Some questions I often get are centered around how to make fresh foods last until lunch or how to put things together that taste good (and look good) to kids when they open up their lunchboxes. With a bit of preparation and some creativity, you can send your kids to school with meals just as delicious and exciting as what you serve at home. It’s also important to note that kids’ stomachs can’t hold a large amount of food. For this reason, their meals need to be extra nutrient dense to help them stay full longer.

What to pack for lunch back to school 

The  back to school lunches I pack for Emmy always include some combination of healthy fats and protein, fruit and vegetables and whole grains. I always try to shop for what is in season. In this back to school season I will do fruits, like berries, melons, peaches and mangos, while including corn, tomatoes and summer squashes (zucchini and yellow squash) from the vegetable side. Some good examples of the items that are easy to rotate through his lunch are listed below. I also love this resource for figuring out what is in season each month.

Healthy Fats/Proteins:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Avocado
  • Hummus
  • Beans

Fruit:

  • Melon
  • Berries (Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc.)
  • Bananas
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Dried fruits are also a great option

Vegetables:

  • Cucumbers
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes

Whole Grains:

My favorite back to school tools

When I pack Emmy’s lunch, using a lunchbox with dividers makes prep super easy and he has fun picking items from each of the sections inside. I will generally dedicate a section to each food group so I can quickly go through my mental checklist to make sure he has everything he needs to fuel his day. I also love to give him a set of his own silverware that we can easily wash and reuse the next day. They are a great, sustainable option to help teach your little ones the importance of caring about being friendly to our environment. I also always toss in an extra ice pack to keep the food cold until lunchtime!

Easy meal ideas 

A lot of my clients will say they know what their kids need, but they aren’t sure how to creatively combine all of the elements to make a healthy, balanced lunch. They also want to provide the variety that kids often crave. Some of the my favorite things to pack for Emmy are:

  • Avocado, black bean whole grain roll-up with a side of fruits and vegetables. Can also add some sautéed corn right into the wrap!
  • Rice and black beans with a quick tomato, pepper, olive oil salsa, topped with avocado. I usually put the vegetables in their own section to keep it from getting soggy!
  • Whole wheat pasta with a tomato, basil, onion and olive oil bruschetta on top gives you a flavorful combination of whole grains and vegetables. Top with some plant based cheese and serve with a side of your child’s favorite fruit. It’s a great meal served warm or cold.
  • Hummus and cucumbers (which can also be put into a whole grain wrap for added nutrients) served with fruit and some plant based yogurt topped with your child’s favorite nuts and sprinkled with seeds.
  • Whole grain pasta salad with vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and sautéed zucchini with cannellini beans for protein and seasoned with a light Italian dressing, or a combination of olive oil, red wine vinegar, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. It’s an all inclusive meal that is delicious served cold. Add a side of fruit and toss in some avocado for extra fat and protein and you’re all set!
  • BONUS TIP: Keep your avocado from turning brown during the day by squeezing a little bit of fresh lemon or lime juice. It’ll add just a little extra zing, and keep it from turning that unappetizing brown that often turns kids off of it by lunchtime.

What about snacks?

Snacks can be such an important part of getting your kids through the day with a full belly. I like to pick nutrient-dense, easy to eat foods for Emmy to take to school. Below are some of my favorites that combine two or more of the main food classes. They help keep him full while being a tasty mid-morning or afternoon snack.

  • Apples and nut butter
  • Baby carrots, cucumbers, or bell pepper and hummus
  • A smoothie (I like to make it with frozen fruit and put in a cup like this to help keep it cold until snack time)
  • Energy balls with seeds, dried fruit, and a nut butter base
  • Trail mix with a variety of nuts and dried fruit
  • Whole wheat toast with peanut butter and bananas
  • Strawberries dipped in plant-based yogurt and frozen overnight.
  • Whole grain vegan tortilla chips with guacamole – I’ll often add extra tomatoes to the guacamole for additional nutrients.

If you need something pre-packaged, Skout bars are my favorite go-to! They’re convenient and a family favorite made with organic and whole plant based ingredients. No preservatives or chemical additives. So as a gut health specialist, they tick all my boxes for adding plant variety in a tasty little package. They have 12 different flavors including allergen friendly options. Check them out here and use code PLANTBASEDGUT for a 20% discount.

Have a great year! 

There are many options for ensuring your kids are getting adequate nutrition while in school. So what’s the key? First, ensure you are packing items from each of the leading food classes of healthy fats and protein, fruit and vegetables, and whole grains to ensure that your child is not only complete but also continuing to build and grow their healthy gut microbiome. This will set them up for the most success as they enter the new school year. Check out this blog for more information on helping your child develop a healthy gut microbiome!

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