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Plant Based School Lunch Ideas

Power up your child’s lunch box this school year by providing plenty of plant-based choices. Vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils, split peas), whole grains, nuts and seeds are rich in both nutrients and phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds). When you make plants the centerpiece of your child’s lunch, you will also be loading them up on fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folate, magnesium and a number of other key nutrients needed to perform better in both school and sports.

Most nutrition experts recommend a plant-centered diet as the basis for good health. Children who follow a plant-based diet into adulthood can expect a reduced risk of obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases. Plant-centered meals are also economical, healthy, and a fun way to introduce new foods and flavors to your child.
Think beyond the nut butter sandwich to include a variety of kid-friendly foods that will end up in your child’s tummy. Here are four tips to packing a healthier plant-based lunch your kids will love.
1. Kids like compartments
Bento boxes or other divided containers are popular with kids and a perfect way to insure variety. Add colorful veggies such as snap peas, carrots, or pepper strips; easy-to-eat fruits like pineapple chunks, apple slices, grapes, kiwi slices, avocado chunks, cut-up melon and berries; protein such as marinated tempeh strips, almonds, hummus, edamame, or sunflower seed butter; and whole grains such as crackers, flatbread, brown rice or quinoa salad (see recipe below).
2. Kids prefer to have a say
Be sure to involve your child in lunch prep duties. When kids are in on the planning, they are much more likely to eat and enjoy a healthy lunch. Presenting a couple simple choices like broccoli or cauliflower for your vegetable and hummus or tahini for your dip can go a long way.
3. Get creative with soy based deli slices
Soy-based deli slices are a great addition to sandwiches and salads or are popular rolled up on their own. For a change of pace, make a lettuce wrap by layering deli slices on a large lettuce leaf, adding some mustard or other favorite condiment and rolling it up with a toothpick to secure it.
4. Think ahead to cooler days
As the weather cools, there are many vegan hot dishes that can be included in lunches such as soups, stews and whole grain pasta dishes. Kids look forward to having warm, comforting foods as a part of their lunch.

Plan ahead to ensure diet variety and quality. Key nutrients such as protein, calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12 and zinc are critical for proper growth and development in children. Here are some examples of plant-based sources of these nutrients to get you started.
Nutrient Some Plant-Based Food Sources

  • Protein: Legumes, soy products (i.e. tempeh, tofu, edamame, soy based deli slices), nuts and nut butters, some whole grains, and many vegetables
  • Calcium: Calcium-fortified soy or other alternative milks, tofu and some fortified soy products such as tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, almonds
  • Vitamin D: Fortified soy or alternative milks/yogurts and some fortified breakfast cereals
  • Iron: Whole grains, soy beans, tofu, legumes, green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds
  • Vitamin B12: (especially important for vegans) Foods fortified with vitamin B12 such as fortified soy milk, nutritional yeast, and some fortified breakfast cereals
  • Zinc: Legumes, tofu, whole grains, nuts, and some fortified breakfast cereals

Looking for an easy, kid-friendly recipe that combines the key nutrients all in one dish? Give this Quinoa and Black Bean Salad a try!
Quinoa & Black Bean Salad
A perfect balanced all-in-one meal for your child’s lunchbox. Just add fruit!
1 serving
Ingredients:
1 cup cooked quinoa, chilled
½ cup cooked black beans, rinsed and drained
½ – 1 cup fresh seasonal vegetables (i.e. bell peppers, broccoli or cauliflower florets, squash, spinach, corn, etc.)
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
¼ avocado, cut into chunks
Juice of ½ a fresh lemon
1 teaspoon olive oil
Seasonings as desired (i.e. garlic, green onion, cayenne or hot sauce, etc.)
Directions:
In a mixing bowl, toss all ingredients until well combined. Chill for at least one hour to blend flavors.
Nutritional Information Per Serving: 480 calories; 15 g fat; 18 g protein; 71 g carbohydrate; 233 mg sodium; 17 g fiber; Calcium 9% DV; Vitamin A 35% DV; Vitamin C 131% DV; Iron 32% DV
Enjoy!

Connie Evers, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, is a pediatric dietitian and mom of three. She is the author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids, 4th ed. and Nutrition Fun with Brocc and Roll, 2nd ed. She works with schools, families, and children from birth to young adult. She also specializes in sports nutrition for child and adolescent athletes.

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