EXTENSION: Easy tips for packing healthy, yummy lunches for happy, energetic kids

May 3—Lunch is a nice break from your work and play time for kids. This important meal is also an important time for kids to refuel for the rest of the day. Packing lunches can feel like a chore, but it doesn't have to. In fact, it can be healthy, fun and a learning opportunity all at once.

Here are some tips for packing a delicious, nutritious lunchbox for your kiddos and making it an enjoyable experience:

—Balance is key. Children need a mix of protein, carbohydrates and fats throughout the day. This variety fills their bellies, fuels their minds and bodies, and helps regulate their energy and emotions. This combination is the recipe for a tasty lunch.

—Protein power. Protein is key for helping children feel satisfied throughout the day. To meet their protein needs, consider including a hardboiled egg, beans, roasted turkey or chicken, nut butter, yogurt or cottage cheese.

—Colorful carbohydrates. Fruit and vegetables are colorful ways to add energy and flavor. Whole grains are another great source of energy. These include foods like oats, brown rice, quinoa, popcorn, and whole-grain pasta, bread and crackers. These higher-fiber carbohydrate choices will provide a steady release of energy, keeping your child energized.

—Flavorful fats. Fat is one important part of flavor, and a little goes a long way. Oils, dips and dressings are great flavor boosters for vegetables and whole grains. Nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt and avocado also have nutritious and delicious fat.

—Pull it all together with a fun theme. Now that you know the parts and pieces of a lunch, how do you put it all together? Having a go-to list of ideas can make it easy to pull together what you have in the kitchen. Tex Mex, snack platters, pizza and breakfast are a few ways to piece together foods. For example, breakfast for lunch could include a hard-boiled egg with peppers, string cheese, grapes and whole-grain crackers. It could also be a whole-grain waffle with nut butter, yogurt, banana and cucumber.

—Pack at your peak. Are mornings hectic for you? Consider packing lunches the night before. Does it work better to do everything at once? Taking extra time on Sundays to pack lunches for the week is a good option. A grab-and-go in the morning saves time for you and starts the morning off more organized.

—Have children take the lead. With some guidance about what kinds of food to include, children can pack their own lunches. Consider laying out all the ingredients and guiding them through putting it together. For older children, you can provide a menu of what is for lunch. They can find and put everything together. To give children even more independence, give them a checklist of healthy options. Provide structure by telling them how many choices to pick from each category. Younger children might need some help, but they will definitely enjoy being part of the process.

—Remember the ice. Once you have a delicious and nutritious lunch packed, make sure to include an ice pack. This keeps food safe until it is time to eat.

For other creative ideas for adding nutritious foods to the diet, look for upcoming programs and classes at your local Laurel County Extension office.