When it comes to packing a lunch for kids, you just need to grab a protein, add a fruit and veggie and you're good to go, right? Not exactly. As any parent knows, children can have exacting standards when it comes to their school lunches and those standards can change on a whim. So we were curious: What are the most and least popular packed lunches for kids these days? We decided to go straight to the source and ask the kids themselves.
We conducted an unscientific poll of 50 kids ages 4 to 15 from across the United States on what they like and what they hate about packed lunches. Their answers may surprise you. istockphoto.com
Worst: Tuna Fish
Despite the fact that my 14-year-old niece makes herself a tuna fish sandwich almost every day for lunch, she's not in good company - especially among the younger kids. Asked what their least-favorite school lunch option is, we heard a resounding, "Tuna fish! Ewwwww!"
Why? Well, it's stinky, the kids report. Others deem it "yucky," while still others simply shrivel up their noses and groan. It does seem kids come around to tuna the older they get, which is promising because we adults know tuna is a great healthy lunch option. Choose albacore packed in water for the healthiest, most delicious option. istockphoto.com
Kids are also not fans of leftovers, they tell us. Leftovers are hard to keep warm, they tend to get "mushy," and a rehashing of last night's main event just isn't exciting. As one polled child said, there's nothing worse than "food that should be warmed up but I had to eat it cold." istockphoto.com
Worst: Turkey Sandwiches
While kids like sandwiches in general (more on that in a bit), they are not fans of turkey sandwiches.
Kids who don't like turkey do tend to like chicken. Buy a pre-made rotisserie chicken and serve slices of breast on bread with hummus for a healthy, delicious option. Rotisserie chicken is much healthier than processed deli meats. istockphoto.com
Worst: Greek Yogurt
Kids do love yogurt, but not the Greek variety. Perhaps this is because the kids polled don't know what Greek yogurt is, but nevertheless, only 31 percent said they'd eat it if it came in their packed lunch. istockphoto.com
Worst: Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches
Sometimes deemed a healthier alternative to the classic PB&J, peanut butter and banana sandwiches seem like a home run. Bananas slathered in peanut butter - what's not to like? Quite a bit, it seems. Only 32 percent of kids polled say they like them. Hold the bananas, parents. istockphoto.com
Avocado, every adult knows, is full of healthy fats. And guess what? Kids don't care. Only 33 percent will eat cubed avocados at lunch. Apparently, it's a texture thing. "They're slimy," reports Jenna, 7. istockphoto.com
Worst: Deli Roll-Ups
For whatever reason, kids we polled aren't huge fans of deli roll-ups - those pinwheels made up of deli meats and cheeses rolled up in a tortilla. They ranked low on our "favorite foods to pack" question.
But kids who do like deli roll-ups love them. Try making them more appetizing by adding cream cheese or spearing them with cute toothpicks. Dreamstime
While 64 percent of kids polled said they like veggies in their packed lunches, broccoli isn't a favorite. Only 37 percent of kids approve of broccoli in their lunches. So how to make nutrient-rich broccoli more attractive to kids? Parents recommend serving bite-sized pieces slathered in cheese or served with dip. Kids agree. Their favorite dips? Ranch and hummus. istockphoto.com
Worst: Veggie Chips
Only 41 percent of kids polled say they like veggie chips, which doesn't really make these sodium-filled snacks a "worst" as much as a "meh." Dreamstime
Best: Pasta and Chicken Nuggets
Kids we polled like pasta and chicken nuggets for lunch in equal measure, but not quite as much as you'd think. This is likely because both need to be kept warm and can turn to mush.
Instead of frying nuggets or tenders (kids have no preference between nuggets and tenders), try baking them instead. It's much healthier. istockphoto.com
Best: Peanut Butter and Jelly
According to the National Peanut Board, the average kid will eat 1500 PB&J sandwiches before they go to college, and the kids we polled love them. In fact, PB&J was the overwhelming favorite among all sandwich options in the poll. Only 25 percent of kids say they don't like them.
Here's the deal with PB&J: Peanut butter has a lot of fiber and protein. It's the sugar-filled jelly that's troublesome. Look for jams that contain real fruits and no added sugar.
As for what makes a great PB&J, kids say they like grape jelly (37 percent) best, with strawberry coming in second (19 percent). istockphoto.com
Best: Chunks of Food
School lunches average 20 minutes a day. That's hardly enough time for a student to unpack and eat her food - while simultaneously chattering away with her friends.
One mom reports that her children eat everything when she provides it in bite-sized form. "Little squares of meat or cheese, little chunks of carrots, grapes, raisins, weiners, teddy grahams, pickles in slices, boiled egg whites, fruit in chunks," she says, adding that she frequently uses cookie cutters to make fun sandwich shapes. istockphoto.com
Best: Apples and Oranges
Easy to eat and full of vitamins, apples and oranges make a great addition to packed lunches.
"Don't give them an entire apple, and always peel the oranges," suggests mom and food writer Katherine Lee. You'll have better luck getting your kids to eat if you do the hard work for them.
The most popular apple right now, among both kids and adults? Honeycrisp. And you can't go wrong with mandarin oranges and Halos. istockphoto.com
Kids, it turns out, love cucumbers. Sixty-five percent of those polled said they'd welcome them in their lunch bags. "I like them because they're crunchy and easy to eat," says Cody, 8. Cody's mom says she likes to sprinkle a tiny bit of sea salt on the cucumbers to add flavor. istockphoto.com
Best: Flavored Yogurt
When given the option between plain, Greek, and flavored yogurts, 65 percent of kids polled chose flavored. No surprise there. The only problem with flavored yogurt is that many pre-packaged brands contain up to 20 grams of sugar. Instead of serving flavored yogurt, consider stirring a dollop of honey or jam into full-fat Greek yogurt. istockphoto.com
Kids love cheese, no matter the form it comes in. "I like cheese pizza, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, cheese quesadilla, pretty much cheese anything," says Lucien, 12. So what cheese is healthiest? Skip the low-fat versions and American cheeses. Opt instead for the full-fat, non-processed cheddar and mozzarella cheeses. istockphoto.com
No surprise here, 76 percent of kids polled said they're good with strawberries in their lunch bags. Like most fruits, these are best enjoyed cut up into bite-sized pieces. Just keep in mind that each year strawberries top the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list. This is one fruit that's worth always buying organic. istockphoto.com
More than 75 percent of the kids polled said they're cool with pretzels in their packed lunches and they voted 3-to-1 for pretzels over veggie chips. (Surprise, surprise). Nutritionists claim that pretzels on their own don't have much nutritional value and can contain a lot of sodium, but when used as a vehicle for eating protein-packed nut butters and nutrient-rich hummus, they're an excellent addition to a lunch bag. istockphoto.com
Kids love sandwiches in general. Of all the lunch options given to them in the poll, including pasta, chicken nuggets, quesadillas, and deli roll-ups, a vast majority (37 percent) chose sandwiches as their favorite.
And of those sandwiches, here's how their favorites stacked up:
53 percent prefer PB&J
25 percent would choose ham
12 percent like turkey
8 percent prefer cheese istockphoto.com
Of all the fruits, grapes pulled in the most votes among the children polled. A whopping 87 percent said they like grapes as part of the packed lunch. You can even pop them in the freezer to help keep the rest of the lunch cool.
But are grapes healthy? Turns out they are packed with antioxidants and some vitamins. But they can be a choking hazard for younger kids. It's always a good idea to cut them in half for your littlest ones. Grapes also make the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list, which highlights foods that tend to have high levels of pesticides, so we recommend buying organic. istockphoto.com
Best: Baby Carrots
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all, baby carrots were overwhelmingly voted the most favorite packed lunch item. While we were surprised to see this, it turns out baby carrots are fast becoming one of the most popular items in the grocery food aisle, according to the USDA.
But are they a healthy choice? They are. While all baby carrots are rinsed in a chlorine solution to kill bacteria, they are also rinsed in fresh water afterwards. Parents have nothing to fear, expect possible choking risks. Some schools require that parents cut baby carrots in halves or sticks. Now that we've got lunch covered, let's move on to the foundation of every day: breakfast! Do you know how much this important meal cost the year you were born?
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