Simplify the Packed Lunch: Easy Bento Box Ideas for Kids

Make lunch fun, creative and colorful
Bento box ideas for kids lunches

You’re not a cutting-carrots-into-intricate-shapes type of parent. And those store-bought lunch combos are soooo tempting.

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But overcome the urge! You can still make lunch fun and healthy without the time commitment.

Enter the bento box. It doesn’t have to be Pin-worthy to help you offer quick meals kids are eager to eat. Pediatric dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD, shares some tips for using the bento box to your advantage.

What goes in a lunchtime bento box?

“The bento box is trending because it makes lunch fun,” says Hyland. “I love it from a nutrition viewpoint because it incorporates all the food groups when you do it correctly.”

Pinterest may glamorize the bento, but the secret to success is variety. (It’s the spice of life, after all.) Build your box around the food groups:

Fruits and veggies. Hyland recommends prepping a few options at the beginning of the week. It is important to include both a fruit and a vegetable in the box. Even if your kids don’t like raw vegetables, Hyland says to keep trying. You can also microwave frozen veggies before you put them in the lunchbox (some kids even prefer them this way).

“Veggies are the freebie you can use to fill in the nooks and crannies of the box,” says Hyland. “But if you have a super picky kid, don’t overwhelm them. Shoot for two to three bites of the vegetable.”

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Proteins. Lunch meat (rolled up or cubed), nuts (if your kid’s school allows them), hard-boiled eggs, tofu or edamame are great protein choices. Chicken and tuna salad are relatively quick to whip up as well.

Whole grains. Shop for whole-grain tortilla chips or crackers, popcorn or pretzels. Homemade mini muffins or granola bars would also be great grain options.

I love homemade, whole-grain mini muffins. Throw in two mini muffins, a protein, fruit and veggie … and you are good to go.

If your kid has a wrap or a sandwich, this alone would count as their grain.

Dairy or fat sources. Keep these on hand: Cubed or sliced cheese, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt and avocado.

Go for a mashup to cover all the food groups

There’s a reason the sandwich has stood the test of time — it includes several food groups in a single package. But the sandwich is a bit, well, dated (unless you spring for a cute cookie cutter to make the sandwich a fun shape). Plus, there’s the mushy bread factor.

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“A grain-based salad can be a refreshing, easy alternative to a sandwich — combining many food groups in one dish,” says Hyland. “A simple pasta salad could include whole grain noodles, leftover chicken or lunch meat, cheese and some cut up veggies with Italian dressing.”

Another great option is confetti quinoa salad. A quick Tex-Mex version could include high-protein quinoa plus black beans, corn, bell pepper, tomato and salsa.

Lunch hacks for the busy parent

Hyland loves getting kids involved because they are more eager to eat the lunch they created. Teach them to cut up fruits and veggies. Plus, when you spend a little time at the beginning of the week preparing options, it’s easy for them to assemble their lunch.

Another fun idea? Instead of labor-intensive hand-cut strawberry flowers, shoot for themes, such as:

  • Breakfast for lunch: Throw in a combo of whole-grain pancake strips, Greek yogurt and berries plus a hard-boiled egg.
  • Pizza party: A non-time-consuming pizza includes a whole-grain English muffin, pizza sauce, cheese and turkey pepperoni (already assembled or let them do it during lunch) plus a fruit and veggie side.
  • Happy holidays: Go for orange, purple, white and black foods for Halloween. For Memorial Day you might choose red, white and blue foods.

“It takes no extra work to get a stash of fun food picks to make the food more exciting,” says Hyland. Sometimes kids won’t eat a food if it looks boring, but if you put a cute character pick in the item they are more inclined to try it.  “Another easy trick is using appetizer-size forks — kids love them.”

Here’s the ultimate bento hack: You don’t even need a real bento box. Hyland suggests using muffin tin liners as the separators in a standard container. Ta-da!

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