The first thing I realized: I'm giving my kids too much food. You'd think I would have realized this sooner, as I would have food coming back in their lunchboxes each day, but they would give me excuses like "I didn't have time to eat it all" that made me think it was still the right amount. Part of me, as a mom, had this nagging anxiety that they wouldn't get enough to eat at school so I would over pack and give them too many options. And guess which options weren't eaten? That's right, the "healthy" ones. So I cut out the junk 100%, and the lunchboxes started coming back empty. The reusable lunch containers help me keep a reign on portion size too.
I also realized I was buying "lunch food" not FOOD food for their lunchboxes. Boxes full of little single serve packages designed and marketed right toward me, the mom making lunches who wanted something the kids would eat and something that would also be easy to throw into a lunchbox. Full of additives and over packaged, these foods were appealing to my kids but weren't healthy or environmentally conscious when it came to waste. And since when are gummy snacks even considered food? No wonder my kids liked them, they are barely a step up from Skittles, and emblazoned with cartoon characters they are directly marketed toward my kids. I also found that when I started thinking outside the "lunch box" (pun intended) that a ton of options opened up that I didn't think of. Breakfast for lunch (whole grain waffles with fruit and cream cheese), olives and cheese cubes, whole grain pasta, anything leftover from dinner that they liked the night before is always an option. Not everything needs to come in sandwich form, and usually I don't give sandwiches at all anymore actually. Sometimes their whole lunch is just "finger foods", sometimes it's an entire leftover mini dinner.
I also had trouble finding a juice box that was healthy and affordable (the "organic options can sometimes seem a little too expensive for what you're getting, and not exactly "healthy" either), so I started sending them in with Klean Kanteens with just water. Turns out they like the option of being able to refill them as much as they want! Find a ton of great colors and the smaller sizes of Klean Kanteens at Healthy Living Market and Cafe. Kids can put stickers on them and customize them too which is a bonus. When they are home from school I keep them filled with water sitting on the edge of the counter within their reach, when they ask for a drink I direct them back to their kanteens, nice and simple.
Back to the limiting options. This is going to sound harsh, but I looked at it in the way that if my kids are hungry, they will eat what is given to them, so I might as well only give them healthy options. At home they know we have more options on hand to ask for, but if all they HAVE is healthy, then they will have no other choice. 80% of my lunchboxes are usually cut up fruit and vegetables, and that's it. Peppers, celery, cucumbers, apples, strawberries, carrots (not baby carrots, sliced and cut regular carrots), snap peas, all are big hits. I found that I was overthinking it as far as ways to make veggies more appealing. I usually add a sweet yogurt dip or a ranch yogurt dip (from 100 Days of Real Food) depending on the child or hummus, never underestimate the power of a dipping sauce for kids.
We also do build your own lunchboxes, which are my healthy twist on the Lunchables that my kids ask for ALL THE TIME even though I never buy them. Triscuits (sort of always on the lookout for five ingredient or less crackers), cheese slices (I have even cut up an organic Stringles for cute little "slices") sliced cucumber and tomato and they get to build their own little snacks. Again, be realistic to how much food your child can and should actually eat during lunch, it is probably less than you are picturing, trust me. As far as store bought stuff, I throw in some Siggi's yogurt tubes (when I can find them), the organic Stringles, and hummus a lot too.
Also, shaped food is HUGE, especially for little kids. Get a melon baller and use it as much as possible. You can hollow out apple halves and have kids fill them with yogurt dip, use tiny cookie cutters to cut out shapes in cucumber, cheese, kiwi, bananas, watermelon, all kinds of stuff. Levy refused to even try kiwi until it was cut into heart shapes. Now she loves it. Regular shaped kiwi is still off limits though, of course. Overall our lunches are also nut free, my kids don't have any nut allergies but they both like to sit with their friends that have nut allergies so usually we avoid peanut butter and other nut butters.
Sadly, my efforts to try to give Finn his beloved green smoothies to take to school haven't worked out yet, they usually are somewhat separated by the time he gets to drink them, but they are still a staple of our breakfasts and Levy is slowly getting to like them although hers are a tad less "green" still. Need some smoothie recipe ideas? Click here for some of my favorites.
Our goal of going additive free is definitely a work in progress, but one that I have grown committed to. 100 Days of Real Food, Weelicious and Momables have all been great resources for ideas. For the most part though, I am committed to adopting a real food diet that allows for some treats too. Will I let the kids eat a totally sugary birthday cake on occasion? Yes. Do we still have Nutella crepes? Totally (though only once in a while I swear). And guess what? They still have pizza on Fridays at school, because they like to share that with their friends, and I'm okay with that. Everyone is different on that front, but I feel like having a few opportunities for "cheats" works for us (and for a pregnant me who occasionally has some serious Chinese food cravings). Letting them have a few treats in moderation makes it easier for them to have the healthy, whole food stuff on our regular basis, but like I said, every family is different. If you have some favorite recipes or links, share them here!