Whether you’re back to school virtually, in person, staggered, hybrid, homeschooled, whatever the case may be, thinking of something to feed kids and young adults three times a day plus snacks can feel like a daunting feat with lunchtime being especially difficult.

Don’t think just because this is my profession that I’ve had the easiest time feeding my little one. Last year when my daughter was in a Mother’s Day Out Program, I got a note from her teacher that I needed to pack her more food. She was eating some of the other kids’ lunches. Not my proudest moment. Guess that mac and cheese was hard to pass up.

Today let’s talk about how to make some typical packed lunches a little healthier and a few tried and true tips.

PB&J is a classic and one of my favorites. I lived off peanut butter sandwiches in college, especially during tennis season when the cafeteria packed our lunches for road trips. It was either pb or grayish deli meat. No thanks.

With a few simple tweaks you can turn this lunchbox staple into a healthy yet still yummy option. If you’re using white bread swap it for wheat or even white wheat if you’ve got an extra picky one on your hands. Go with a low sugar jelly or better yet make your own super simple chia seed jam. Make sure your nut butter has only two ingredients — nuts and salt — and to boost the fiber content sprinkle a little ground flax on top of the nut butter before putting the sandwich together. I promise your little one — heck even preteen or adult — won’t ever be the wiser.

Skip lunchables. Save money and your child’s waistline by making your own healthy version at home. I read an article recently that highlighted just how many ingredients are in those prepackaged lunches. It’s staggering. For example, the ham and cheese with a cookie had over fifty ingredients. Yikes.

A few simple swaps will tone down that extremely long ingredient list. Make sure you’re buying a nitrate free deli meat. Swap out that buttery cracker for a whole wheat cracker with a short ingredient list. Choose a slice of cheese with a short ingredient list as well. Swap an energy bite for the overly processed sugary cookie that comes with it. I included my go-to energy bite recipe below. You’re welcome.

Juice boxes and soft drinks. As important as healthy foods are for a growing little one, their beverage can have just as much impact. Water and milk, or a non-dairy soy or plant or nut-based milk for those who are dairy intolerant should makeup the majority of beverages they consume.

If you are serving up juice, remember the actual fruit is hands down the better option. With juice you’re missing out on fiber and it’s a heck of a lot easier to double down on calories when you’re sipping them. You should shop for and purchase 100% juice only. Even 100% should still be consumed in moderation.

Soft drinks are a hard no. This one I’m not budging on. Soft drinks provide no nutritional value and are packed with sugar. Sports drinks should be treated like soft drinks as they pack a significant sugar punch as well. They should be reserved, for adults for extended athletic effort or extreme temps.

To cut down on all the prepackaged and processed items, swap out chips for carrot chips or cut up veggies and hummus. Try baked tortilla chips with guacamole for something crunchy, homemade whole wheat tortilla roll ups, “ants on a log” with celery, nut butter or SunButter and raisins. A whole wheat tortilla and serving of black beans, salsa and cheese makes a DIY taco. Make it fun and colorful by adding in a fruit kabob. Change up the fruits and veggies you pack or serve to reflect what’s in season, saving you dollars and keeping it fresh and local.

Try a homemade parfait with Greek yogurt and include some fun toppings like low sugar granola or cereal, ideally less than ten grams of sugar per serving, and lastly keep in mind any food restrictions your child’s school might have. I like to make sure that each lunch, whether packed or at home, includes a serving of fruit, a serving of veggies, protein, and healthy fat.

Without further ado, here’s the energy bite recipe that’s a weekly staple at my house:

From Eating Bird Food Blog this recipe is no bake, items you probably already have in your pantry and a hit with all ages. This recipe is thrown together in minutes and yields sixteen servings.

No Bake Energy Balls

Ingredients:

1 cup old fashioned rolled oats (can swap for gluten free if needed)

1/2 cup natural peanut butter or almond butter (can sub SunButter if your child has a peanut allergy or is at a school where there is a peanut restriction)

1/4 cup honey

1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut (can omit or swap for no sugar added dried cranberries)

1/4 cup chocolate chips (I use a dairy free dark chocolate chip)

2 Tablespoons ground flaxseed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch of sea salt

Instructions: Place all ingredients in a large bowl and stir together well to combine. Place bowl in the fridge for thirty minutes to an hour so it can set up. Bring dough out of the fridge and roll into balls about one tablespoon in size. Store in a covered container in the fridge or freezer.

Jessica Barnett is a Southwest Virginia girl married to a Greeneville native, a mom, personal trainer, certified fitness nutrition specialist, runner, herbivore and ice cream lover. To learn about working with Jessica, prospective clients may email jcbarnett616@gmail.com.

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