For parents of school-aged children, the quest for nutritious yet appealing meals for our kids is never-ending. If you’ve been hunting for kids' lunch ideas, chances are you’ve stumbled upon bento box lunches—a creative and practical solution taking the lunchbox game by storm.
In this post, we’ll explore gut-healthy bento box lunch ideas for your kids and "eating the rainbow" with our very own functional medicine health coach, Amy Orlandi. Get inspired by our colorful and fun cold lunch ideas for kids. Spoiler alert: these aren't just any ordinary lunches. They’re also a powerful way to support your child's gut health and boost their immune strength!
Read on to discover delicious and nutritious bento box ideas that will have your kids eagerly anticipating lunchtime every day!
How to Survive the Picky Eating Phase
Meet Amy. A microbiology graduate turned functional medicine health coach, she offers holistic health guidance to Tiny Health families, especially through the challenging “picky eater” phase. With a Masters of Public Health in Nutrition from the University of Queensland, Australia, and a belief in “food as medicine,” Amy taps into her personal experience as a mom of two boys who successfully overcame their own picky eating phases. When she isn’t coaching Tiny Health families, you might find her substitute teaching Kindergarten, fulfilling her soccer mom duties, or even traveling to compete in beach soccer tournaments.
Amy, what do you recommend to parents of “picky eaters?”
Some children have a legitimate reason that they struggle with new foods, like a sensory issue. But for 90 percent of children, picky eating is a phase, and one that we can work through. Kids’ taste buds change every three weeks.
The key is to keep offering new foods. I encourage parents to think of it this way - “they don’t like this yet.” It might take 9-10 exposures to the same food before your child is willing to try them. But don’t make it a power struggle. Keep the pressure off, your child may fight it if they feel forced or pressured to eat something new.
Another tip I offer parents is to offer two familiar foods when introducing a new food. It’s less overwhelming for your child if their plate includes foods they already love!
Finally, support your child’s desire for independence by giving them the power of choice. Let them choose a new item from the produce section of the grocery store or farmer’s market. Or, get them involved in making their lunch. They’re much more likely to eat something if they chose it or helped make it!
Key Ingredients in Gut-Healthy Lunches for Kids
Before we jump into our bento box ideas, let’s cover some basics. As a parent, just getting your child to eat might feel like a struggle. Getting them to eat nutritious foods that support their gut and immune development might feel impossible. So, we asked Amy to lay the foundation for what really defines a healthy lunch.
Amy, what makes a school lunch “healthy”?
A healthy school lunch should include protein, veggies, and healthy fat. Kids also need carbohydrates for energy—it’s fuel for their growing bodies!
We also recommend including fermented foods in your child’s diet every day. Fermented foods act like a probiotic. When working with kids, I say these foods are “giving your belly buddies a high five!” A few ways to incorporate fermented foods into your child’s lunchbox include:
- Pack a yogurt: This can include either dairy or plant-based yogurt with live cultures. Kefir has the best benefit, followed by greek yogurt. Choose brands that do not contain lots of added sugars or artificial sweeteners.
- Try sauerkraut: You might be shocked to know how many kids actually enjoy sauerkraut! You can include it as a side, or chop it up and mix it into other things, like a sandwich.
- Add flavor with miso: This fermented food packs delicious flavor and can be mixed into foods or smeared onto a hard boiled egg or sweet potato.
In general, aim for a variety of plant-based foods to make for a colorful and healthy lunch box. Your whole family can try to “eat the rainbow” - another fun way to frame this with your kids is that they get different “superpowers” from different foods. To help families out, we put together a Rainbow Foods Tracker along with a list of gut-healthy foods to try in each color.
What foods should parents look for in the grocery store?
Try to go for package-free, whole foods as much as possible! Processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable, meaning they are irresistible to our taste buds. The more our kids eat them, the less they want real, whole foods. Processed foods also contain a lot of not-so-great ingredients like emulsifiers, which can disrupt the gut.
Get in the habit of checking the ingredients list when you’re shopping. Go for foods where the list is short, with ingredients you can actually pronounce. Look at the sugar content. It’s recommended that kids have at most 12 grams, or 3 teaspoons, of sugar per day. That’s really hard to stick to when we offer a lot of packaged foods!
A lot of brands are getting sneaky with low-sugar alternatives, and they’ve replaced real sugar with artificial sweeteners. You may think products that use natural sweeteners like stevia are healthier. But these natural alternatives to cane sugar can be sweeter to our taste buds than cane sugar. So what we’re doing is training our kids’ taste buds to want overly sweet things.
Are there foods parents should definitely avoid including in their kids’ lunches?
Try to limit processed lunch meats. Swap them out for shrimp, smoked salmon, hummus, or beans with nutritional yeast. And skip the juice boxes and sports drinks. Your child doesn’t need the added sugar. Whole fruit is way better!
Ready to dive into some kids' school lunch ideas? Read on for Amy’s take on 5 easy-to-make bento box lunches.
Five Tiny-Health Approved Bento Box Ideas for Kids
Your search for healthy lunch ideas for kids ends here! The Tiny Health team put together five colorful and healthy lunches for kids, then asked Amy to review them. Find out what she had to say about each bento box lunch, and get inspired for your next shopping trip!
1. Flavor-Packed and Full of Variety
There’s so much to love in this colorful lunch! It’s package-free, which helps kids develop that good relationship with whole foods for the long-term.
- Multiple berries together: If your child likes raspberries or blueberries, include them, but try adding a second type of berry to the mix. Berries are a great source of polyphenols.
- Miso on a hard-boiled egg: Eggs have great protein, and the miso is an easy way to add fermented foods and great flavor!
- Multiple veggies with hummus: Kids like dipping things. Hummus is a great source of prebiotic fiber. If your child likes carrots or bell pepper in their favorite dip, include a second veggie they can also dip!
- Granola is a fun sensory snack: especially at the toddler stage. And it offers protein from nuts, seeds, and grains. (Just watch out for the sugar content!)
2. Banana Nut/Seed Butter Wraps
This lunch features one of my favorites - banana nut/seed butter wraps. It’s a fun option that a lot of parents don’t think of when they’re searching for ideas for healthy lunches for kids. You probably have the ingredients you need for them in your pantry!
- Nut/seed butters with mix-ins: Take a whole wheat or gluten-free tortilla, spread your child’s favorite nut or seed butter on it, and top with sliced banana (or another fruit!), chia seeds, cinnamon, flax - so many different ways to hide extras that are tasty and great for their gut. Cinnamon is an easy place to start, adding sweetness with antimicrobial properties to keep unfriendly bacteria away.
- Mixed fruit: Berries and grapes offer a pop of color and gut-healthy polyphenols.
- Carrots and hummus: Kids love dipping! Try mixing in some raw garlic into the hummus for an extra antimicrobial boost.
3. Double Protein Bento Box
This box has two different proteins and at least 9 different plant foods! We recommend trying to eat 30 different plants each week. Nuts, seeds, and grains count!
- Double protein: This lunch includes both shrimp and nuts, which are great sources of protein that your kids’ growing bodies need. Shrimp can also be prepared in so many different ways to accommodate your child’s tastes.
- Food on a stick: This is a super-simple way to make foods fun! You can get more fun and fancy, of course, but this tip is fast and requires low effort.
- Adding texture: Sesame seeds and ground flax are incorporated here to add flavor and texture to the shrimp and hummus.
4. Yogurt, a Tasty and Gut-Healthy Probiotic
Yogurt with live active cultures is a popular fermented food and an easy way to give your kids’ beneficial bacteria—those “belly buddies” we talked about earlier—a boost. This lunch also includes a rainbow of veggies together.
- Gut-healthy yogurt: Unsweetened or lower-sugar yogurts are a great vehicle for additional plant-based foods, like berries, oats, and seeds. If your child has a dairy allergy, look for plant-based yogurt with active cultures.
- Seed or nut crackers: A fun snacking food and tasty way to include more plants.
- Hard-boiled eggs: These keep your kiddo full and help keep their blood sugar low.
- Keep treats as treats: This lunch includes a chocolate chip granola bar, which is a very common snack that kids enjoy. It’s convenient (and real life)! The key here is keeping treats as treats. Limit the lunchbox to having one.
5. Meatless Monday Bento Box
This bento box is so fun and colorful. It also works great for ‘meatless Monday,’ a fun way to prioritize eating more plants with your family!
- Quesadillas: A great way to include black beans, a great protein and fiber source. In addition to the typical cheese, you can also try adding in chopped spinach, bell pepper, tomato, whatever your kid will eat and enjoy.
- Guacamole: Avocado has great healthy fats, and it’s also a great place to add in some chopped sauerkraut (fermented) or raw garlic (antimicrobial).
- Veggie skewer: A colorful and fun way to get your kids to try more variety!
- Cheese: If your child can tolerate dairy, cheese can help keep them full through the school day.
- Apples with the skin on: Apples have great prebiotic fiber for your child’s digestion. The skin has pectin which is also great for gut health! Pro tip: unsweetened applesauce with the skins blended in is a great way to get your kids to eat the skin without even knowing it.
- Dark chocolate chips: A tiny little treat. Dark chocolate contains polyphenols, which a lot of milk chocolate varieties don't have. Your kids won’t notice the difference!
Healthy Lunches for Kids Shouldn’t be Intimidating
We hope this blog post has given you a few ideas for nutritious and fun lunches for your children! In the age of Pinterest, mommy bloggers, and social media influencers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed about packing your kids’ school or daycare lunches. You want the best for your child’s health, but picky eating can make nutritious school lunches seem like an unattainable dream.
Don’t place unrealistic expectations on yourself. You don’t need to knock your kids’ socks off with new, cute and creative displays in their lunchbox every day, or pack loads of trendy snacks in order for them to eat. And pressuring or forcing your kids to “eat healthy” often backfires. Don’t strive for perfection or deprivation. Focus instead on fostering your child’s healthy relationship with food for their lifelong health. Let their food exploration be fun!
Supporting your child’s gut health with a variety of plant-based foods goes a long way in supporting their developing bodies and immune systems. There are a lot of great resources online for more school lunch ideas, like the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Packing a Healthy Lunchbox guide. Start small, introducing one new food at a time, and celebrate your wins along the way. You’ve got this!