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Whether your kids are going back to school in person or virtually, or you’re going the homeschooling route, one thing is for certain: They are going to need lunch. As a registered dietitian and mom, I am always on the hunt for what I like to call “hero foods.” Hero foods are foods that save the day when I am trying to pack or fix a simple kid-friendly lunch that is nourishing — and that my daughter will actually eat.
Yes, I could follow the YouTube tutorials about how to make homemade bread and create sandwiches that look like Monet’s paintings, but the reality is that I am just too busy to attempt to be a Pinterest mama. These days, my “hero foods” are pre-packaged. Of course, I still stick to food choices that have some protein, fiber, or healthy fats to keep my kiddo satisfied. I also want lunch choices that contain important nutrients like calcium and iron to help support her growing body. My goal? Help avoid the distraction of those afternoon tummy rumbles so she can focus on her studies — regardless of where she is learning.
Thankfully, there are loads of grocery store items here to help make school lunchtime a breeze. Here are a few of my family’s favorites.
1. Wonderful No-Shell Honey Roasted Pistachios, $3 for 2.25-ounce bag
For a plant-based protein option that is satisfyingly sweet (without overdoing it on the sugar), honey-roasted, shelled Wonderful Pistachios fit the bill. My daughter loves these pistachios because they are kissed with sweet honey, and I love them because they offer 6 grams of plant-based protein and 3 grams of fiber per serving. They also boast mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids to help keep your kids satisfied (read: not hangry) later in the day. These pistachios are a great yogurt topper or lunchtime bento box addition.
Buy: Wonderful No-Shell Honey Roasted Pistachios, $3 for 2.25-ounce bag at Target
2. Dave’s Killer Bread Organic English Muffins, $5 for six
Perfect for everything from quick and easy pizzas to prep-ahead sandwiches or simply an open-faced snack topped with avocado, these English muffins are a whole-grain solution that kids will actually eat. With 6 grams of protein and 8 grams of whole grains per serving, these muffins certainly have staying power.
Buy: Dave’s Killer Bread Organic English Muffins, $5 for six at Walmart
3. Dr. Praeger’s Sweet Potato Littles, $4
If your little Einstein is learning at home this year, take advantage of being able to offer warm food and use these Sweet Potato Littles from Dr. Praeger’s to your advantage. I love these in place of french fries, and I am never met with protests from my child. Made with sweet potatoes for a boost of beta-carotene, these dino-shaped morsels are a no-fuss addition to lunch.
Buy: Dr. Praeger’s Sweet Potato Littles, $4 at Instacart
4. Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Sliders, $4
Want to get lunch on the table in under two minutes? Try Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Sliders. They contain 20 grams of plant protein per two-slider serving, along with ingredients like carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and beets. Amazingly, my daughter will eat these meatless sliders just as willingly as she will eat a beef variety. These sliders are a true life-saver for busy days at home.
Buy: Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Sliders, $4 at Mercato
5. Drink Simple Maple Water, $30 for 12 (12-ounce) bottles
While I try and get my daughter to drink water, sometimes she wants a little variety. On those days, I skip the typical juice boxes and give her a bottle of Drink Simple Maple Water instead. Maple water is made from the sap that comes from maple trees before it is boiled down to make syrup. It’s loaded with natural antioxidants, prebiotics, and electrolytes, and has more manganese than a serving of kale. (That’s a bonus because my daughter won’t come within two feet of anything green.) Try the raspberry lemon variety for starters.
Buy: Drink Simple Maple Water, $30 for 12 (12-ounce) bottles at Walmart
When an easy protein is needed, I like to turn to Kalahari biltong, which is air-dried beef. Unlike jerky that could contain nitrates or flavor fillers, this is a little more natural and my child loves it.
Buy: Kalahari Biltong, $8 at Instacart
7. Siggi’s Kids Yogurt Pouches, $6 for four
While lots of yogurt packaging may look super kid-friendly, many varieties you’ll come across are made with artificial colors and flavors that I try to avoid. Siggi’s kids’ yogurt pouches are made with 50 percent less sugar than other brands, which makes me very comfortable offering this squeezable treat to my daughter. These are loaded with important minerals like calcium that help support my daughter’s growing bones. Bonus: They’re a life-saver when my daughter gets sandwich burnout.
Buy: Siggi’s Kids Yogurt Pouches, $6 for four at Instacart
8. Applegate Naturals Roasted Turkey Breast, $6 for 6 ounces
As creative as I try to be, it’s hard to avoid making a classic sandwich lunch. After all, they’re one of the easiest and most kid-friendly meals around. Unfortunately, a lot of cold cut options out there are loaded with fillers, nitrates, and artificial colors and flavors — ingredients I try and stay away from. Applegate Naturals Roasted Turkey Breast is free from all of those aforementioned ingredients. I use this turkey in sandwiches, in turkey and cheese roll-ups, and I even toss some on my own salads for a protein boost.
Buy: Applegate Naturals Roasted Turkey Breast, $6 for 6 ounces at Target
9. Joolies Organic Medjool Dates, $9 for 11 ounces
For some sweetness, Joolies organic Medjool dates are a great lunch box treat. These snack-size boxes come with three pre-pitted organic Medjool dates that taste like you are biting into a creamy caramel. Instead of straight sugar, my daughter gets a boost of fiber, antioxidants, and iron along with it. Tip: These dates are a great after-school snack when stuffed with almond butter and topped with chocolate chips.
Buy: Joolies Organic Medjool Dates, $9 for 11 ounces at Thrive Market
10. Ruckus and Co. Smoothies, $8 for four
Ruckus and Co. Smoothies are made with just seven ingredients — including carrot juice and flax seed. Because getting my daughter to eat whole carrots (or any veggie, for that matter) is simply not in the cards, carrot juice is the next best thing. These are awesome to toss in a lunch box because, when frozen, they double as an ice pack.
Buy: Ruckus and Co. Smoothies, $8 for four at Ruckus and Co.
11. KidFresh White Meat Chicken Nuggets, $6.50 for 14 ounces
I love these KidFresh chicken nuggets because they are made with puréed cauliflower in a whole-grain breading. Because they’re baked instead of fried, they have 70 percent less fat than most other breaded chicken nuggets. If your kiddo is learning from home, toss these nuggets in the oven for a yummy lunch that is satisfying and fun to eat.
Buy: KidFresh White Meat Chicken Nuggets, $6.50 for 14 ounces at Target
12. Undercover Snacks, $4 for two ounces
These crunchy chocolate-covered toasted quinoa disks are filled with protein and fiber to help avoid a sugar spike. They taste similar to a puffed rice treat, but give a boost of fiber to help keep my kid satisfied. Not gonna lie — mama sneaks some of these treats at lunchtime too.
Buy: Undercover Snacks, $4 for two ounces at Instacart
Back to School 2020: It’s the strangest back-to-school season of our lives, and no matter where your child’s desk is actually located this fall: they have to eat. Every day. What even is school lunch in fall 2020? We’ve compiled stories, commiserations, and hopeful tips from a diverse crew of parents to help us all feel a little less alone in breathing deep, eating well, and unmuting that ever-elusive Zoom button.