Robin’s Healthy Take: Better Brown-Bag Lunches

by in Back to School, Healthy Recipes, Kid-Friendly, Robin's Healthy Take, March 10, 2011
Robin's Go-To Brown Bag Foods
Robin's Go-To Brown Bag Foods

I love packing lunch for my two boys every day. It’s a little part of me that I send in a brown bag (actually, a thermal lunch bag.) It like to imagine them opening lunch to find my surprises.  These are my favorite simple, healthy foods to pack up, plus, my easy prep and planning tips.

Prep It Ahead
Since our house is often a scramble in the morning, I prep some things the night before. The only thing I want scrambled in the morning is eggs!  The night before, I often chop fruit and vegetables and package dips, salads and crackers in reusable containers. I usually put small portions of a variety of things, since I never know what they’ll be hungry for several hours later. This picture is the perfect example of the things I put in their lunches on a rotating basis.

Make Your Own “Lunchables”
Sometimes I make homemade “Lunchables,” meaning I pack individual items that the boys can assemble at school. For example, I’ll send a small pita, a small resealable container of tomato sauce and a snack bag of shredded mozzarella cheese so they can make their own mini pizzas. Or I’ll put whole grain crackers or a tortilla in one bag and smoked turkey and cheese in another bag (sometimes they want the meat and cheese together, sometimes not). My son Kyle also likes mock tuna “sandwiches:” tuna salad nestled between cheddar Sunchips.

Keep It Cold
To keep everything cold, I add a frozen tube of yogurt that thaws by lunchtime. You can also use a plain old reusable ice back, but the yogurt doubles as a healthy sweet treat.

Get The Kids Involved
If your kids aren’t loving what you’re packing, ask them to help pack lunch so they can choose their favorites. You might be surprised how healthy it is!  Remember, you don’t need the conventional sandwich and apple to create a balanced meal. Here are some of our other favorites:

  • Pasta with pesto and grated Parmesan (no need to keep chilled)
  • Whole wheat tortilla wraps (with ham or turkey, cheese, lettuce and mustard)
  • Whole grain pita topped with tomato sauce and mushrooms; packets of Parmesan on the side (shown in the picture – the Parmesan is from our local pizza shop!)
  • Peanut butter or Nutella sandwiches on whole grain bread
  • Cheese sticks, cubes and rounds
  • Almonds, peanuts and pistachios
  • Baked tortilla chips or whole grain tortilla chips and salsa
  • Raw green beans and carrot sticks with ranch dressing
  • Low-sugar pudding
  • Frozen yogurt tubes
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Pretzel sticks with peanut butter
  • Dried fruit (cherries, mango, cranberries, raisins)
  • Cubed melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon)
  • Red and green grapes
  • Small apples or sliced apples
  • Small oranges or orange wedges

TELL US: What do you pack in your kids’ lunchbox (or your own)?

Robin Miller is a nutritionist, host of Quick Fix Meals, author of “Robin Rescues Dinner” and the busy mom of two active little boys. Her boys and great food are her passion. Check her out at

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Comments (1,236)

  1. Eroica says:

    Some great ideas here, but I’m gonna have to disagree on that “no need to keep chilled” notation regarding the pasta/pesto. Holding that at room temp is just asking for a food-borne illness.

  2. Katie says:

    Haha, I want to start packing these things for MY lunch! Great list of ideas!

    • Robin says:

      Thank you! Funny you should mention that – the teachers ask me to pack their lunches too! Believe it or not, this way seems easier than making sandwiches!

  3. Ashley says:

    A typical Lunch for my daughter is a variety of options with lots of color. I always give her a babybel cheese and then i cut up some veggies(mainly cucumbers,carrots,bellpeppers,or cherry tomatoes)..I add some rasberries,grapes,and blueberries to her plate and will either cook her a few chicken nuggets or give her some turkey deli meat and vegtable crackers(ritz). I make sure she gets all her food groups and has fun trying all the different foods. Shes only 2 so she doesnt get a lunchbox but she definitley loves her lunch!

  4. Katherine says:

    I *am* a teacher and I throw a lot of these things in my lunch. I refuse to eat out of the cafeteria. I always keep emergency rations in my desk (a jar of natural peanut butter and a sleeve of crackers) in case I forget my lunch on the kitchen counter, which has happened a time or two. One of my favorite easy lunches is pasta salad with lots of veggies like carrots, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. I make it the night before with a bit of oil and vinegar and it is delish the next day. I also will throw together a quick bean and cheese burrito if I'm pressed for time in the morning.

  5. Meredith says:

    I struggle with my son's lunch…he does not like deli meats, cheeses, milk or nut butters of any sort (plus the school doesn't allow nuts). He would eat nuts if I packed them tho! So to get him to eat protein at lunch is hard! He loves all vegetables and ends up with a mixed garden salad with croutons most of the days. And then comes home starving!

    Any tips for getting protein in a non-meat or dairy eater for lunch? Thanks!

    • Ellen says:

      What about pudding you make with some extra whey protein thrown in? It doesn't really seem like dairy to kids. You could also make salad dressing using tofu or yogurt as a base, or add it to store bought ranch and throw it in a small food processor. What about boiled eggs or egg salad?..You could make hummus…my kids like just chic peas with garlic and olive oil in the food processor…leave out the tahini which has a strong flavor. I put hummus in a whole grain wrap with salad for my kids and they love it. How about smoked salmon mixed with cream cheese on crackers? My 2 boys are very picky and hard to please, after 3 very easy girls who eat everything, so I can relate! Good luck.

  6. Meredith says:

    Oh – that's a great idea about adding tofu or yogurt to the salad dressing! I think I will try to make hummus w/out the tahini. He did ask for a "salad sandwich"…so I could do a pita pocket w/ hummus and lots of salad and veggies. Thanks!

    • Linda says:

      My son loves avocado sandwiches with nothing but a sprinkle of salt. But I'm loving the "make your own lunchables" idea. My son is always asking for lunchables but I refuse to let him eat all that sodium

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