Now that back-to-school season is officially here, Sally Kuzemchak of our Kitchen Council is sharing a fantastic way to make a healthy lunch for your little students. 

Lunch boxes have come a long way. When I was a little girl, I carried a plastic Peanut lunch box to school, and my dad went off to work with a classic black metal lunch pail. But today’s lunch packing is about simplicity, nutrition, and zero-waste–inspired in part by the Japanese tradition of the bento box.

The bento box features a variety of foods packed neatly and tightly inside a container. In short, it has a magical way of making a lot of healthy odds and ends from the refrigerator look incredibly appealing. And since the bento lunch boxes have their own compartments, you don’t have to fuss with plastic bags or lots of little containers and lids.

When packing a lunch—whether it’s for my kids or myself—I always think about hitting the major categories:

A protein source: I like to pack deli meat rolled up, string cheese, hard-boiled egg, leftover grilled chicken, nuts, edamame, a thermos of refried beans or bean soup, or hummus.

A whole grain: This could be a whole wheat tortilla, bread, or pita; whole grain crackers, leftover pasta in a thermos, whole grain pancake or muffin, or popcorn.

A calcium source: Kids can get calcium from milk purchased at school, a milk box you pack, yogurt, cheese, or non-dairy sources include almonds, broccoli, and calcium fortified orange juice or soy milk.

A vegetable: I try to include a vegetable most days, because most people don’t eat enough vegetables and it’s good to get into the habit of having them at lunch. Some ideas are strips of peppers, carrot sticks, sugar snap peas, and cucumbers.

A fruit: I stock dried fruit like as apricots or raisins and individual fruit cups packed in juice for lunch boxes. But when possible, I like to pack fresh fruit because it’s refreshing and hydrating. Cherries, berries, and cut melon are easy to pack. You can also toss in whole pieces of fruit alongside a bento lunch box. Stemilt Lil Snappers—in apples, pears, and citrus varieties–are the perfect size for kids. I’ve also discovered three easy ways to pack sliced apples (that don’t look brown by lunchtime!) in lunch boxes:

  • Slice apples and toss with a mixture of lemon juice and orange juice (this gives them a sweeter and less tart flavor that my kids love).
  • Slice apples and toss with a sprinkle of cinnamon-sugar.
  • Slice an apple on either side of the core. Fit the two halves together, cut sides facing each other, and place in lunch box compartment. (Then nibble the little leftover sides yourself!)

What are your must-have items for your kiddos lunch boxes? Share with us in the comment below.