Camp season is upon us, which means that – after a long hiatus – lunchbox season is back. The Prep and Rally team is here to help you with easy and healthy meal-prep ideas that your kids will love. Whether your kids are going to camp daily or even just for a couple of days each week, knowing how to pack a balanced lunchbox filled with kid-friendly foods is essential.
Since children are at a critical developmental stage, optimal nutrition is extremely important. The dietary habits that children learn when they are young can have lasting implications into adulthood. If children are exposed to a variety of nutrient-dense foods early on, there is a higher chance that they will grow into balanced, adventurous eaters that are willing to try foods other than pizza, pasta and chicken nuggets – and it all starts with what’s in their lunchbox.
If you’re wondering how to pack a balanced camp lunchbox for your kids (with food they will actually eat), check out our step-by-step guide below!
The MyPlate Model
This step-by-step guide was designed keeping the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate model in mind. The MyPlate model is currently considered the most balanced way to eat by most dietitians and nutrition professionals.
According to the MyPlate model, at every meal, approximately half of the plate (or lunchbox) should be composed of fruit and/or vegetables, about one quarter should be protein and the remaining quarter should be carbohydrates – ideally whole grains. Healthy fats should also be included, as well as dairy, though dairy can also be eaten as a snack between meals.
It’s good practice to keep these guidelines in mind when packing your kiddos lunches so that you know roughly how much of each food group to include in their lunchbox.
Step #1: Start With The Protein
Protein is critical for children’s growth and development. It is often easiest to structure meals around the protein source involved, which is why we recommend starting with it first.
Here are some lunchbox-friendly protein ideas:
- Turkey slices
- Pastrami slices
- Chicken strips
- Greek yogurt
- Tuna salad
- Salmon salad
- Lentil or chickpea pasta
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Egg salad
- Cheese sticks or cubes
- Peanut butter, if your camp allows it
Step #2: Add The Vegetables/Fruit
Once you’ve decided which protein sources you want to go with, it’s time to add the vegetables and fruit. Though your older kids may be excited about a tossed salad, you may have to put in a bit more thought and creativity to get your littles to eat their greens and/or fruit.
Here are some ideas for how to get your kids to eat the fruits and vegetables that you put in their lunchboxes:
- Berry lollipops – If you pop some blueberries and strawberries on a toothpick, eating fruit suddenly becomes as exciting as eating candy.
- Turkey roll-ups – This fun idea kills two food groups with one stone. Take a few slices of turkey, and add pepper, cucumber and/or carrot strips to their center. Roll them on up, and you’ve got a protein and veggie packed (not to mention fun!) option for lunch.
- Melon cutouts – Kids love shapes, and eating fruit will definitely become more exciting if it’s presented as an assortment of stars, triangles, hearts or whatever other cookie cutters you have at home. Slice melon (such as watermelon, honeydew or cantaloupe) into ½-inch slices, and use cookie cutters to cut out your kids’ favorite shapes. If possible, get your kids to help you cut out the shapes so that they are even more excited to eat the fruit! You can freeze any scraps for smoothies.
- Add a sauce or dip – Kids love dipping foods into sauces and dips. Cut some vegetables (like cucumbers, peppers, carrots and celery) into strips, and pack a small container with guacamole, tahini or nut butter for some healthy fats. Hummus is another great option, which will also contribute some protein. Marinara sauce works, too.
Step #3: Carbohydrate Time
Carbs often get a bad rep in today’s diet-focused world, but they are actually the body’s preferred energy source. Carbohydrates will give your kids energy to run around, swim and play with their friends while in camp. It is ideal to include whole grains in your child’s lunchbox if possible.
Here are some ideas for how to include carbohydrates in your kids’ lunchboxes:
- Crackers or rice cakes – You can make a cracker or rice cake sandwich with tuna, hummus, cheese or another protein source if that is more appealing to your kids! You can also include plain crackers or rice cakes on the side.
- Make a sandwich – Sandwiches are super easy and convenient for moms. However, kids can become tired of them really quickly – especially if they eat them every day. Keep things fun by using cookie cutters to change up the shape of your sandwiches. You can also mix up the type of bread you use (ie. sourdough, whole grain, honey wheat, challah, etc.) and what you fill it with.
- Here are some healthy sandwich ideas that also include a protein source:
- Hummus and spinach leaves
- Tuna salad and lettuce
- Tuna salad and cheese
- Salmon salad and lettuce/spinach
- Egg salad and lettuce/spinach
- Peanut butter, banana and honey
- Almond butter and strawberries
- Turkey and pastrami with ketchup or mustard
- Make a wrap – If your kids are sick of sandwiches, it may be a good idea to try a wrap. Roll up some chicken strips, deli meat or tofu with avocado and tomato, cut into bite-sized pieces and secure with a toothpick.
- Pasta salad – If you are trying to wean your kids off the plain-pasta-for-every-meal train, a pasta salad may be a good option for you. You can use whole wheat pasta or a protein-packed pasta, such as lentil pasta or chickpea pasta, to get more nutrition into your kids. Start by mixing the whole wheat or lentil/chickpea pasta with regular pasta to help your kids get used to this change. Chop up some herbs and fresh veggies to add to the mix, and top it all off with some olive oil, lemon juice and salt. Yum!
- Cereal – Include some dry cereal on the side of your kids’ lunches to help them get those carbs in!
Making Things Fun
While it’s helpful to know how to pack a balanced camp lunchbox, it’s also important to recognize that more goes into getting your kids to eat their lunch than what food is involved.
Here are some more strategies that can help your kiddos get excited for lunchtime:
- Use containers that are fun, colorful and bright
- Use a lunchbox that has your kids’ favorite cartoon or TV show characters on it
- Include fun and colorful forks, spoons and napkins
- Include a fun straw
We are totally loving this lunchbox by Clean Lunch’N, as well as this Tastemade Prepd container set. Stasher bags are also great for keeping your kids’ snacks colorful, fun and fresh – plus, it’s an eco-friendly option.
Packing it Up
To ensure the safety of your kids and their fellow campers, we recommend packing a wipe in your kids’ lunchboxes to remind them to clean their hands before eating, especially given the current situation with COVID-19. We also recommend adding an ice pack to your kids’ lunchbox to keep things fresh, as well as for food safety purposes. Remind your kids to give their lunchbox to a counselor to refrigerate when they get to camp, if that is an option.
At Prep and Rally, we are all about efficiency. We recommend preparing your kids’ lunches in one go toward the beginning of the week so that you don’t have to spend time and energy focusing on this every night!
If you enjoyed these tips, be sure to click here to find out how we rally through the week together by meal-prepping in advance. Subscribe to Prep and Rally to make the meal-prep process so much easier for you and your family!
– By Dena Gershkovich, Prep + Rally contributor
Dena Gershkovich is a writer, recipe developer and future dietitian. She holds a B.S. in Dietetics and a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Maryland. She will be completing her dietetic internship with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan starting in September 2020. Follow Dena’s blog, The Artsy Palate, and Instagram account (@theartsypalate) to see more of her work.