Marketing food to kids is usually seen in a negative light, a way to get them to pester their parents for what is usually ultra-processed, nutritionally lacking food. But apply those same sales principles to wholesome, homemade meals, and they become a force for good, flipping the arrow toward healthful choices. Marketers know what motivates kids — they spend billions annually trying to figure it out — so why not borrow a few of their tactics? That's exactly what these action-packed lunchboxes do.
One of the most effective ways to reach kids is to tap their desire for control. Putting them in the driver's seat around food (with appropriate guidance, of course) gives them a sense of autonomy and investment, making them more likely to want and enjoy what they are eating. Gardening and cooking with kids are well known ways to foster such agency, but the possibilities don't stop there. Every step of the meal process is an opportunity for engagement — the more hands-on the better.
These lunchbox ideas are designed to maximize that involvement, putting power into the child's hands by making the meal itself a playful, action-oriented experience. Each is based on an activity for them to do right before or while eating, but there are a multitude of ways to involve them well before that point. Each primes the kids for when they open their lunchboxes and the real fun and deliciousness begin.
Squeeze: Here, a savory sunflower butter sauce (think peanut sauce but with sunflower seeds) is packed in a small bottle for squeezing as much (or as little) as you like onto the noodles and vegetables packed in the separate containers. An empty honey bear or small ketchup bottle works perfectly, or you can buy a small condiment container — just make sure it has a sealable lid. The sauce is easy to make, so it's ideal for prepping with children. And they can personalize their lunch by choosing any type of noodle or vegetable they like.
Roll: Roll-up sandwiches are always a win, but they somehow taste better when you get to roll them yourself in the moment, with ingredients you choose. Let your child help decide which elements to include. You'll need some kind of wrapper — one large tortilla or two small ones, or even a couple of slices of whole-grain bread flattened with a rolling pin. (Be sure to pack the wrapper in a zip-top bag so it stays pliable.) In another container, pack the filling elements — all thinly sliced or shredded for easier layering and rolling — such as slices of turkey or ham, cheese, shredded vegetables such as carrot, and cabbage and lettuce leaves with the ribs removed for easy rolling. Add a small container or packet of whatever sandwich condiment your child prefers, along with a utensil to spread it. Also include a paper plate or large square of foil where your child can layer and roll up their creation.
Dip: One of the best things about dip is that the dipper becomes the utensil, so you get to eat with your hands. This lunchbox centers on a creamy chile-lime-seasoned black bean dip, which can be made as mild or as spicy as you like. The dip itself is fun to make with kids — it's especially eye-opening for them to see how it comes together in the food processor. You can use another type of bean, such as pinto or kidney, to make this dip, or you could substitute store-bought hummus. As for the dippers, the sky's the limit. Let your child choose whatever array of vegetables they prefer, plus crunchy, whole-grain chips or crackers.
Stack: Create a homemade Lunchables-style box with a variety of foods all cut around the same size so they are easily stackable. (You can use a small cookie-cutter or glass to cut many of the items to about the size of the cracker.) Some ingredients to include: whole-grain crackers, sliced cucumber, cheese, hard-cooked eggs, turkey, ham, roast beef, marinated tofu, green apples, strawberries and so on. Pile each into individual muffin liners in the lunchbox so they are ready to be mixed and matched at lunchtime.
Shake: This lunch is a salad layered into a clear container, so it looks like a work of art. Encourage your child to make his or her own colorful creation, choosing whatever vegetables and proteins inspire them. The Italian dressing here is a sure win, but that is easily exchangeable, too. When your kids open their lunchbox at school, they can pour the dressing over the salad, reseal it (tightly!) and shake, shake, shake to combine, then eat it right out of the container.
Along with these ideas, as you get into the rhythm of the school year, keep in mind that another effective tool marketers use to reach kids is the influence of role models. You might not feel like you can compete with the cartoon characters and professional athletes in commercials, but the example you set has a more profound impact than you may realize. With that, as you pack your child's lunch, consider packing yourself one, too and, whenever possible, sit down and enjoy lunch together.
This recipe makes one serving of noodles and four servings of sauce; the sauce will keep, refrigerated, for up to three days.
Vegetables and Noodles With Sunflower Butter Sauce
- For the sauce:
- ¾ cup creamy sunflower butter (not unsweetened)
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 ½ tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon honey (optional)
- Sriracha, as needed
- For each lunchbox:
- 1 cup cooked and chilled soba noodles or whole-wheat spaghetti
- ½ cup blanched and chilled broccoli spears
- ½ cup blanched and chilled snow peas
- ¼ cup cooked and chilled shelled edamame
Make the sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together the sunflower butter, vinegar, soy sauce and ginger until combined. Taste, and if desired, whisk in the honey until combined. Whisk in 6 to 8 tablespoons water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until the sauce is creamy and to the desired thickness. Stir in sriracha, to taste. You should get about 1 ½ cups of sauce; you will need 4 to 5 tablespoons for the lunchbox. Refrigerate the leftover sauce until needed.
Make the lunchbox: Add about a quarter of the sauce to a food-safe squeeze bottle with a secure lid. In a container with a lid, arrange the noodles, broccoli, snow peas and edamame. Place the sauce and the vegetable-noodle mixture in a cooler-style lunchbox with an ice pack. Right before eating, squeeze the sauce over the noodles and vegetables.
Makes 1 serving of noodles and 1 ½ cups sauce.
Nutrition information: Each serving (using 4 tablespoons sauce) contains approximately 516 calories, 22 g protein, 29 g fat, 50 g carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 527 mg sodium and 7 g fiber.
Carbohydrate choices: 3 ½
This lunchbox centers on a creamy, chile-lime-seasoned black bean dip, which can be made as mild or as spicy as you like. (The dip recipe also works well with pinto or kidney beans.) Served with crisp, colorful vegetables and chips for dipping, it's a lunch that is as fun to eat as it is satisfying and tasty.
The dip will keep, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.
Chile-Lime Black Bean Dip
- For the dip:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
- ½ medium yellow onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced or finely grated
- 1 ½ teaspoons chile powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/8 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed or 1 ½ cups cooked black beans
- 1 ½ tablespoons fresh lime juice
- ¼ teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- Pinch or more ground cayenne pepper, (optional)
- For each lunchbox:
- ½ teaspoon grated cotija or parmesan cheese
- ½ cup sliced red bell pepper
- ½ cup carrot sticks
- ½ cup celery OR jicama sticks
- 10 tortilla chips
Make the dip: In a small skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in the chile powder, cumin and coriander and remove from the heat. Let cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
In the small bowl of a food processor or a mini-chopper, combine the beans, lime juice, 1 tablespoon water, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and the remaining oil. Add the onion mixture and process until smooth. Taste and add the cayenne pepper and additional salt, if desired. You should have about 1 ½ cups of dip; you will need a heaping 1/3 cup for the lunchbox. Refrigerate the remaining dip until needed for another lunchbox or use.
Make the lunchbox: Place 1/3 cup of the dip in one section of a divided container or into a separate small, lidded container. Sprinkle the top with the cheese. Fill the rest of the divided container with the peppers, carrots, celery or jicama, or pack them in a separate container. Pack the chips in a separate small bag so they keep their crunch. To eat, dip the vegetables and chips in the black bean dip.
Makes enough dip for 4 lunches.
Nutrition information: Each serving (heaping 1/3 cup dip plus dippers) contains approximately 270 calories, 9 g protein, 11 g fat, 37 g carbohydrate, 1 mg cholesterol, 313 mg sodium and 10 g fiber.
Carbohydrate choices: 2 ½
This lunchbox-friendly salad is layered into a clear container, so it looks like a work of art. Feel free to vary the vegetables and proteins to make your own colorful creation. When you are ready to eat, pour the Italian dressing over the salad, reseal it (tightly!) and shake to combine, then eat it right out of the container.
Layered Salad With Italian Dressing
- For the dressing:
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 ½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
- ¾ teaspoon honey
- ¾ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon granulated garlic
- ¼ teaspoon fine salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For the lunchbox:
- ½ cup seeded and diced cucumber
- ½ cup quartered grape tomatoes
- ½ cup cooked chickpeas, drained (and rinsed if canned)
- 1/3 cup (2 ounces) diced fresh mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup shredded romaine lettuce, plus more as needed
Make the dressing: In a medium bowl, combine the oil, vinegar, mustard, honey, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper whisk to combine. You should get about ½ cup dressing; you'll need 2 tablespoons for the lunchbox. Refrigerate the remaining dressing until needed.
Make the lunchbox: Place about 2 tablespoons of the dressing in a small container with a tight-fitting lid. Place the cucumber on the bottom of a tall, wide-mouth, 3- to 4-cup container with a tight-fitting lid. Top with the tomato, then the chickpeas, mozzarella and lettuce. Add more lettuce as needed to loosely fill the jar to the top. To pack, place the salad and the dressing containers into a cooler-style lunchbox with an ice pack.
Right before eating, shake the dressing, then pour it over the salad. Re-cover the salad tightly and shake to coat the salad with the dressing.
Makes 1 serving, plus extra dressing.
Nutrition information: Each serving (1 lunchbox with about 2 tablespoons dressing) contains approximately 490 calories, 18 g protein, 32 g fat, 31 g carbohydrate (6 g sugar), 50 mg cholesterol, 576 mg sodium and 8 g fiber.
Carbohydrate choices: 2