It’s that time of the year again, when the kids go back to school and the family’s weekly schedule is jam-packed with activities. With all that’s going on, it can be tough to make sure that that everyone is getting the proper nutrition that they need on a daily basis, especially when it comes to lunch options. It’s already a challenge to get dinner on the table on time and not give in to take out every day, so how can you make sure that your family members are eating healthy meals during the day? The Valley of the Sun YMCA is focused on encouraging healthy living, and with that in mind, here are some healthy lunch ideas that can help you make your family’s midday meals a success.

There is no doubt that the free lunch programs offered at schools are valuable resources for many parents, and they provide well-balanced meals that children enjoy. If you want to have a bit more control of the nutrition in your child’s meal, packing lunches can be a wise choice that can help your entire family stay healthy. Since you will already be putting together midday meals for the kids, why not pack the adults in your family something as well? This can help you avoid eating out and save you money. One way to do this is to prepare meals ahead of time. If you add one easy step to your to-do list on Sunday, you may be able to lessen your morning routine during the week. Try baking or grilling chicken breasts that can be used for sandwiches and salads ahead of time, or cut up fruits and veggies to divide them up later.

It’s challenging to know if you are always packing the most nutritional meals for your family, but if you follow the “My Plate” guidelines, it can help make the process easier. Make sure that the lunch bag has lots of fiber and whole grains, some protein and healthy fat, a veggie, and just a bit of natural sugar, like a piece of fresh fruit. In terms of serving amounts, try to imagine a plate, with fruits and veggies taking up half the plate, and the other half split between whole grains, proteins and healthy fats.

Fruits and vegetables come in every shade and they get their color from naturally occurring vitamins and nutrients, which are essential for good health. For example, red apples, red peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, cherries, watermelon help promote heart health, while green veggies and fruits like asparagus, cucumbers, grapes and honeydew melons support healthy teeth and bones. Oranges, cantaloupe, carrots, butternut squash, lemons, mango, peaches and sweet potatoes boost immunity and purple-hued items like eggplant, beets, blueberries, and figs help with healthy aging. If you try to include a variety, or rainbow, of these colors in your family’s lunches, you will be helping them get a complete of range of nutrients with tremendous health benefits.

A little bit of sugar or fat is alright if it means kids eat more foods that are good for them. To give them that hint of sweetness without overdoing it, try these trade-outs for healthier lunchtime desserts:

  • Instead of chocolate sandwich cookies, try whole-wheat graham crackers with natural peanut or almond butter.
  • Instead of candy bars, try celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins.
  • Instead of flavored applesauce, try a clementine or apple cut up into pieces.

The general rule of thumb is that kids and adults should eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but it’s often difficult to make sure that everyone is getting the adequate amounts in their daily diets. A good way to add them to your family’s meals is to sneak a few of these servings into lunches. Add some pumpkin puree to pasta sauce or spinach to a frittata or make a cauliflower crust pizza for an extra serving of vegetables. To satisfy your family’s sweet tooth, make sweet zucchini muffins or cookies. Even the pickiest eaters won’t know the difference.

To give kids a sense of control and a vested interest in eating their lunches, involve them in the prep work and decision making about what goes in the lunchbox. It may be better to do this on the weekend or the night before to avoid any morning meltdowns.

Choose healthy swaps or fun recipes so your family will be excited about eating their lunches every day. Try putting PB&J on a flavored rice cake, or bagel or add a zucchini cake, veggie patty or grilled cheese sticks as the main meal. Instead of a sandwich, put the same ingredients on a whole wheat tortilla or wrap a thin-sliced turkey or ham around a pretzel, carrot stick or low-fat string cheese. Mix up menu items to make them too tasty to swap. You can also try these healthy recipe ideas:

  • Banana and Almond Butter Sandwiches on whole wheat bread
  • Lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, cucumbers and hummus in a pita pocket
  • Whole wheat tortillas with peanut butter and dried cranberries or cherries
  • Cheese triangles with pepperoni and whole wheat crackers for stacking
  • Rainbow fruit skewers with yogurt dip (nonfat vanilla yogurt or a mix of ½ cup nonfat plain yogurt with 1 teaspoon honey)

This could be an item they’ve never eaten before or one they haven’t had in a while. It’s good to showcase different items on the lunchtime menu every now and then as this will introduce your family to healthy foods they may not have tried before. Try acai or dragon fruit frozen pouches, which can be found at local grocery stores, and use them in a tasty smoothie that you can pack in your family’s lunch. Mix in baby spinach leaves to your smoothies, and these healthy drinks can add a natural sweet touch to the meal.

Be careful when it comes to packing soft drinks with your lunches. Soft drinks contain incredible amounts of sugar that can be harmful to your family’s health, and the more you can avoid them during your midday meals, the better. On average, a 12-ounce soda contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar and 150 calories, and juice boxes, even 100% pure, contain lots of calories and sugars too. Instead, add slices of your favorite fruits or veggies to a pitcher of water and pour it into a water bottle to make it a portable drink. You can also put chopped up fruit in an ice cube tray, and freeze it to put in their water bottles later. Low-fat or skim milk is a good alternative to sugary drinks as well.

While lunchtime meals are an essential part of your family’s day, it’s equally important to include exercise and physical activity into your weekly routine. Kids learn best when they see their parents being active and eating healthy so remember to set an example and show your children the significance of a well-balanced diet and exercise in your lives.