Happier Meals: How to Pack a Better Lunch for Your Little Ones

It's a new school year, and a new opportunity to raise your kids' lunch game, and that's true wherever class is taking place. Follow our pediatrician-approved checklist and get our lunch box ideas below. It's as easy as one, two, three, and will keep little learners alert and enthused all afternoon.

Related: Healthy Dinner Ideas for Hungry Kids

Protein for Energy

Picky eaters tend to have high-carb (crash-and-burn) diets, according to Los Angeles pediatrician Dr. Nina Shapiro. To avoid the afternoon slump, reach for meats like shredded turkey or chicken, or vegetarian sources such as beans, edamame, and Greek yogurt.

Fiber for Focus

Paired with protein-rich foods, high-fiber options can help boost kids' attention spans, Dr. Shapiro says. Raspberries, pears (skin-on), peas, and broccoli are smart choices, as are whole-wheat crackers, bread, and pastas, which provide complex carbohydrates that are digested slowly.

Vitamins and Minerals for Growth

That's right, bring on more colorful fruits and vegetables. Kids ages 4 to 8 need 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups total daily; ages 9 to 13 require 3 to 5 1/2 cups. "They're essential for overall health," says Dr. Shapiro. She suggests frozen mango and blueberries in a pinch; they're preserved at their peak and thaw by lunchtime.

Do a Dip

Dairy is great for bone‑fortifying calcium, ample in yogurt or hard cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan. Kids need two to three servings a day (one serving is a cup of milk or yogurt, or 11/2 ounces of natural cheese). Round out chopped bell peppers, sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and edamame with our protein‑and‑fiber‑loaded white‑bean ranch dip: Purée 1 cup Greek yogurt, a 15‑ounce can of drained and rinsed white beans, 1 tablespoon extra‑virgin olive oil, 1 chopped garlic clove, and 1/4 teaspoon each dried oregano and dried dill, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Shift Shapes

Cut fruit into fun, colorful bites. Try mango spears, melon balls, and mini kiwi fruit halves. Add protein and healthy fats via a simple nut‑free pesto: Pulse 1 chopped garlic clove, 1/4 cup pepitas, 3 cups packed fresh basil leaves, 1/2 cup extra‑virgin olive oil, 1 ounce grated Parmigiano‑Reggiano, and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor; toss with fork‑friendly cooked pinwheel pasta.

Divide and Conquer

Feeding a fussy one? Try using lunch boxes that keep flavors and textures separate and picky palates at ease. We like Ekobo Lunch Boxes ($35, food52.com), which are shown above.

Recipes by Shira Bocar; food styling by Greg Lofts; prop styling by Suzie Myer.

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