Summer has barely begun and I’m already hearing grumbling about healthy lunchbox ideas for day campers.
I get it. I empathize. I make lunches all year too and it can get daunting. My kids are old enough now that they are away at camp, so I get a pass with breakfast, lunch and dinners but I’ve been there.
Camp lunches are harder than school lunches because sometimes they sit out in the heat if the program has no refrigerator or cooler. And the kids are often much hungrier than usual because they have been burning through their breakfast fuel racing from one activity to the next.
Of course there is hydration to cause worry as well.
There are allergy rules that need to be respected.
One of your kids is a vegetarian and the other only eats steak.
One kid has a snack time and the other doesn’t.
Really, it is a blur of baggies, water bottles and smashed sandwiches.
Allow me to help set you up for success as you set your camper up for the summer.
Healthy Lunchbox Rule #1
Boy Scout Motto: The first rule is for you to BE PREPARED. Set yourself up for success by calling the camp and finding out if there is a refrigerator or cooler to put your child’s lunchbox in.
This is important, because you may be able to send your picky eater off with his favorite yogurt for lunch, or you may need to be more creative.
Also, ask if there is a snack time and where the snack is stored. If you know the rules (ask about allergy protocols) you are more likely to have a happy camper.
Healthy Lunchbox Checklist
Set yourself up with:
Labeled water bottles. While disposable water bottles are tempting, a reusable BPA free, water bottle that keeps the water cold and can serve as a cold pack is a great tool. You may also want to freeze a water bottle to use as an ice pack, but know that it may or may not defrost in time if your child actually wants to use the melted ice to drink.
Insulated lunch box. (2 per kid). The Wonder Woman metal lunch box of your childhood days deserves a spot in a museum. There are amazing advances in lunch boxes out there – many come with cooler packs that perfectly fit in to keep contents cool. Buy an extra set of the cold packs if possible, so you always have a spare on hand.
Labels. Lots of kids gear looks alike. Buy dishwasher safe stickers with your child’s name so it can be easily identified. Worst case, pull out the sharpie and hand write on disposables.
Ziploc bags in sandwich and snack sizes. Look for environmentally friendly options that are available at many markets. Non disposables that double as placemats are a fave, too!
Tupperware in 4 ounce size, sandwich size and 8 ounce size (2 per kid)
Forks and spoons
A sense of humor
Healthy Lunchbox Ideas
Figure out, based on what you know about yourself and your child, what should go in that lunchbox.
Do you want your kid to have a fruit or vegetables, a snack, a sandwich and a beverage? Is it important to you that there is always something that feels like a ‘treat’ to your son? Does your daughter get a granola bar and fruit every day for snack because that is guaranteed to be wolfed down?
If you have a family philosophy (I like to say food culture) then it makes it easier to establish a routine. The more routine your lunchbox, the easier it is to pack.
Do not put foods and goodies in that lunchbox if they are not what you want your child to eat. Lots of parents fall into a trap of packing a lunchbox that they know their child will eat, even if they are not the foods the parent wants them to be eating. Aim to have at least two or three go-to’s that hit both of these marks.
- Conventional Sandwich:deli meat such as carageenan free Applegate roast beef and uncured ham, Nuna turkey or chicken, or chunk or canned light tuna on whole wheat Ezekiel bread with favorite toppings such as thinly sliced cucumbers, radish, broccoli sprouts, thinly sliced peppers and shredded carrots.
- Mini Bagel:choose a whole wheat and high fiber (3 grams or more) mini bagel or bagel thin. Spread with cream cheese or hummus and load up with tomato or broccoli sprouts, or peanut/almond butter and mashed berries. While bagels are no nutritional powerhouse, they have a place in a well constructed lunch box as a vehicle for healthy fillings. Of course, if you’ve got a kid who enjoys healthy crackers like Finn Crisps and Mary’s Gone Crackers, swap them out for this hole in the middle idea. Those options will bump this lunch up a notch.
- Leftovers:grill some extra chicken, steak, fish or veggie burgers and pack in a Tupperware with your Junior’s favorite raw vegetables. You can wrap this up in a tortilla (I like Maria and Ricardo’s) and re-invent it with a spoonful of guac. Campers love a no fuss one handed lunch so they can get back to their hiking, archery and crafts.
- Deconstructed Yogurt Parfait:choose a 6 ounce Greek yogurt, and pack a little Tupperware or baggie with 2 tablespoons granola/pumpkin seeds/chia seed/raisins. They can assemble and eat at lunchtime so the granola doesn’t get soggy.
- Spread and Serve:there are these amazing little inventions out there, such as nut butter tubes (Justin’s Nut Butter or Barney Butter), hummus cups (Tribe hummus snackers are everywhere!) and super spreadable cheeses like Laughing Cow Pair any of these with carrot or celery sticks, cucumber slices, and high fiber crackers.
- Pasta Perfection:If you make whole grain pasta during the week, make a little extra to turn into a cold pasta salad. You know your child best – toss with tuna canned in water and diced carrots with a vinaigrette, or add some diced ham and broccoli. Be creative but make sure to put some lean protein and vegetables in there to boost the nutrition and keep your kid satisfied.
To add the snack, or not? You should meet your child’s nutritional needs, but may not meet their calorie needs without a snack. If you feel your child needs more than a main dish, fruits or vegetables and water, choose snacks that you feel good about.
To make your life easier, pre-portion them over the weekend, so you can grab and go when packing Sonny’s lunch.
Healthy Lunchbox Snacks
Healthy crackers, like Mary’s Gone Crackers products, are a great choice in lieu of overly processed chips and pretzels. Kids love them and they are more healthful alternatives so you will feel better about serving them.
Nuts are delicious and a tablespoon or two goes a long way. Kids love to shell pistachios and peanuts, so consider them as good “extras” that are friendly to your kids’ health. Note: call camp ahead to find out nut protocols/practices.
Olives pack easily, are delicious, satisfying, and fun. They even come in individual packs!
Dehydrated and dried fruit. Fruit leather and dehydrated berries are easy to find, don’t spoil easily and rate strongly among little ones, so consider them better choices than cookies and candy.
Granola bars can be really sugary and over processed. I recommend Kind bars, Lara, BumbleBar and 22 Days bars; really, there are so many out there, but you’ll know it is a good one if you recognize all of the ingredients on the ingredient list as food!
Dried seaweed is all the rage. Better than chips, these novel slips of seaweed satisfy even the strongest preferences for salty and crunchy. They have perfectly portioned servings that are no worries to toss into a lunchbox.
Happy camping, friends. I am sure your children will be well prepared for a summer of fun, fueled on the healthful contents that you prepared with love, in their lunchboxes.