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The back-to-school lunchbox challenge is upon us, but fear not. These six creative ideas help make veggies hard to resist at any age.

By Heather Young

In the 1960s, the School Lunch Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was determined to find out just what it was kids wanted to eat for lunch. So it tested nine recipes across 50 communities.

The revelatory findings: “Students tend to like the same foods – meats and sweets – and dislike the same foods – vegetables.”

Evidently, 1960s school lunches did not offer Tater Tots.

For many parents, not much has changed in the past 50 or so years. Yet at the same time, so much has changed in the past 50 or so years.

For one thing, the lunchbox has evolved,  so parents can try a variety of new ideas. Safe insulation alone has resulted in a multiple choice of nutritious options. And we can even make healthier veggie tots!

But the most important factor to packing an inviting lunchbox has not changed over the generations. It is creativity, and we’ve got a backpack full of ideas to share. 

Veggie ribbons or noodles: Transforming carrots, zucchini and yellow squash into colorful ribbons is a snap. Peel the veggies lengthwise, about 1/16 of an inch. The strips can be served alone or with macaroni salad, raw or blanched. (Cook for about a minute in salted boiling water and then toss into a bowl of ice water.) You can buy a fancy vegetable spiralizer, but an old-fashioned peeler will do the trick.

Veg-kebobs: We are so happy for companies like Bentology. It offers not only adorable lunchboxes, but also cute accessories such as food picks decorated with pandas and flowers. These little guys make for adorable veggie skewers small enough to accommodate sweet peas. Bigger kids can enjoy chunks of sweet pepper, cheese, cooked potato fingerlings and cherry tomatoes on larger skewers (pointy tips removed).

Decorative veggie liners: These are to veggies what cupcake liners are to dessert – an eye-appealing food delivery system. Practically speaking, kids are more likely to pick up and hold these liners, which means they will be more likely to eat what is inside. Reusable silicon cups are available
in a variety of shapes, or use mini cupcakes holders. Smaller liners are easier for little hands to cradle.

Veggie shapes and cutouts: Several retailers, including, sell veggie cutters shaped like hearts, flowers and even animals. Just press down on a thickly sliced veggie and you’ve got an antioxidant-rich elephant! The bonus is that kids can participate in the fun. Cookie cutters can be used in a pinch, but they should be small.

New-fangled tots: Tater tots can be made with a variety of veggies, including cauliflower, sweet potatoes, zucchini and broccoli. Some recipes combine several veggies, including good old potatoes. This easy broccoli tot recipe by Sweet Pea Chef calls for baking, so the tots are less greasy and hold up better for lunch.

Yummy, all-natural dips: Many of the above treats can be made more fun and tasty if paired with a creamy dip and topper. But try not to forfeit all this good nutritional work by using dips that are high in fat, additives and sugar. That could throw a kid’s mood and concentration off. Read the labels and look for dips with ingredients even your kids can pronounce.

Plan-ahead tip

Lunch is a cinch in a pinch if your kitchen has a few essentials on hand. We suggest some basic skewers, cheese cubes and pepperoni, seeded crackers, fresh fruits, hard-boiled eggs and bite-sized veggies such as snap peas, grape tomatoes and carrot sticks. Half-cup containers are a must for granola, trail mix and healthy (preservative-free) dips and toppers.

Participation should be a goal, since kids are more likely to eat what they help prepare. If your kid is kitchen-wary, look into Kidster, a cooking club that sends themed cooking kits complete with recipes and kid-friendly prep tools.

Lastly, no lunch is complete without a smile. Add a veggie-related joke to the lunchbox for kicks. Something like “I think this celery is stalking you.”

Even in the 1960s, that line would get a laugh.



Heather Young is a natural food scientist and team member, with her husband Josh, of Healthy Nation, a movement dedicated to improving our nation’s health by inspiring people to eat more vegetables. The Healthy Nation team is based in Over-the-Rhine.



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