Build a Bento Box Lunch for Kids

Pack Five Foods for Fun, Flavor and Health

Elena Veselova/

Old-style rectangular metal lunchboxes are passé. New, convenient compartmentalized containers inspired by the Japanese bento box and Indian tiffin allow parents to pack up to five different, colorful and healthy items for a child’s lunch with less plastic wrapping to separate foods. It dovetails exactly with what nutrition professionals recommend.

Think Five

“People usually eat with their eyes,” says Allison Forajter, a clinical dietitian at Community Hospital, in Munster, Indiana. “The more color and variety presented the better.”

Holley Grainger, a registered dietitian, creator of the blog Cleverful Living at and mother of two school-age daughters in Birmingham, Alabama, agrees, saying, “These boxes make lunchbox packing easier because each compartment can be assigned a different food group.”

Grainger usually starts with a protein, adds fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and inserts a surprise treat for a total of five selections. “One easy and inexpensive way to boost protein is through low-fat dairy options like milk, yogurt, string cheese or cottage cheese. For children that like meat and poultry, roasted chicken and low-sodium deli turkey are delicious options. This is where I like to work in leftovers, so last night’s entrée may be the filling for today’s lunchbox mini-tacos. For a high-protein vegetarian/vegan option, beans/legumes are a favorite, whether in dips, salsas, salads or pastas,” she says.

Forajter recommends exploring varied colors of the same type of fruits or vegetables. Offer green and purple grapes or red, yellow, green and orange bell pepper strips, and ask kids if each color tasted different. Including unusual fruits or vegetables can be a learning experience for the whole family. “Try purple and orange cauliflower or red, yellow, white or purple carrots,” she suggests.

Grainger not only packs healthy foods for her kids, she makes sure they get a little emotional nutrition”, as well. She might include a piece of chocolate or a cookie, but the surprise doesn’t have to be food. “A note or picture from you written on your child’s napkin adds a special touch. It lets them know you’re thinking about them and gives them a feeling of security throughout the day,” she says. 

Parents faced with the daily round of lunch packing may benefit from the system of five. Each item goes into a separate compartment in the bento, box-style lunchbox. Many also offer a space for a “chiller” to keep foods safely cool.

Easy Options

Protein: turkey breast, chicken breast, hardboiled egg cut in half, nuts, beans, almond butter, string cheese, yogurt

Fruit: blueberries, apple slices, plums, grapes—something easy for kids to eat

Vegetable: carrots, English cucumbers, celery sticks, bell pepper strips—easy finger foods; kids might eat more veggies if provided with a dip such as hummus or natural homemade ranch dressing

Whole grain: ancient or whole grain crackers, pita bread, non-GMO blue corn chips

Treat: a happy surprise could be a piece of wrapped dark chocolate, a crayon or a funny, loving or encouraging note from a parent

Lunch: a Key Meal

“When children are fueled with nutritious foods, they are more alert and focused throughout the day, leading to better behavior, concentration and test scores,” says Grainger. “They also have the opportunity to fill up on many of the essential vitamins and minerals often lacking in away-from-home meals. I’ve found that my children are hungrier at lunch than at other meals, so they tend to fill up on whatever is being offered.”

Judith Fertig writes award-winning cookbooks plus foodie fiction from Overland Park, KS.



Vladislav Noseek/

Holley Grainger, a mother of two in Birmingham, Alabama, took photos of the healthy lunches she packed—all 125 of them. Check them out at

Kelly Kwok, cookbook author and mother of two schoolchildren in Buffalo, New York, shares many perfect-for-a-lunchbox recipes on her blog Here are three of them.

Egg ‘Salad’ Sandwich

Kwok makes a healthier egg salad sandwich for her children by blending scrambled eggs with Greek yogurt, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper as a spread on multigrain bread.

Healthy Sides: Cooked corn on the cob, pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries, apple slices with or without almond butter

Hummus Wraps

Store-bought hummus, a bag of baby kale or spinach, a few shredded carrots and a whole-grain tortilla come together for an easy wrap.

Healthy Sides: Stemmed sweet cherries, banana chips, yogurt

Rainbow Skewers

On short wooden skewers, slide on tiny mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes and cooked tortellini with a tiny container of pesto or marinara sauce for dipping.

Healthy Sides: Mixed fresh berries and bell pepper strips, healthy granola bar



Sarah Britton, a plant-based holistic nutritionist who blogs at, lives near Toronto, Canada, with her husband and school-age son. Like all mothers, she faces the challenge of packing her child’s lunch. These three recipes can be made ahead of time and come from her new book Naturally Nourished: Healthy, Delicious Meals Made with Everyday Ingredients.

Sour Cream and Onion Chickpea Crisps

Yields: 4 to 6 servings

Make a double batch to have extra to garnish salads and soups as a gluten-free, high-protein crouton replacement.

3 Tbsp coconut oil
1½ tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp dried dill
4 tsp onion powder
1 tsp fine sea salt
3 cups (2 15-oz cans) chickpeas, drained and rinsed  

Preheat the oven to 400° F.

In a small saucepan, melt the coconut oil over low heat. Whisk in the lemon juice, dill, onion powder and salt.

Remove from the heat and cover to keep warm. Keep in mind that the chickpeas will crisp up outside of the oven, so it’s okay if they’re still a little soft when finished roasting.

Spread the chickpeas out on a clean kitchen towel and rub them dry, discarding any loose skins (chickpeas will not crisp in the oven if wet). Place the chickpeas in a large bowl and toss with the coconut oil mixture.

Spread the chickpeas on a large rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast, stirring occasionally, until golden and crisp, 25 to 35 minutes.

Remove the chickpeas from the oven and let them cool. Serve at room temperature. Store in an airtight glass container at room temperature for up to one week.

Toasted Walnut Brownie Bite Dough

Yields: 1 pound dough

Brownie Dough
1½ cups raw, unsalted walnuts
¾ cup, cocoa powder
2 cups soft dates (preferably Medjool)

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Place the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until lightly colored and fragrant, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.

In a food processor, pulse the walnuts until they are finely ground. Add the cocoa and salt. Pulse to combine.

Pit the dates and add them one at a time through the feed tube of the food processor while it’s running. The resulting mixture should resemble cake crumbs but, when pressed, will easily stick together (if not, add more dates).

Use the dough to make the Brownie Bites. Leftover dough (one-third of the batch) will keep in the freezer for up to one month.

Toasted Walnut Brownie Bites

Yields: about 10 balls (servings)

⅓ batch (about ⅓ lb) of brownie dough

Shape the dough into 10 small, bite-size balls. Freeze the balls until ready to eat. Store in the freezer for up to one month.

Natural Awakenings recommends using organic, non-GMO (genetically modified) and non-bromated ingredients whenever possible.

Vanilla Coconut Brownie Bites

Yields: about 10 balls (servings)

⅓ batch (about ⅓ lb) of brownie dough
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 Tbsp unsweetened, desiccated coconut, toasted

Combine the dough with the vanilla and 1½ teaspoons of the coconut, using both hands to fully incorporate the ingredients.

Shape the dough into 10 small, bite-size balls, then roll them in the remaining coconut.

Freeze the balls until ready to eat. Store in the freezer for up to one month.

Honey Almond Granola Bars

Yields: 14 bars (servings)

It’s important to toast the oats and almonds as both contain an unwanted phytic acid, which is destroyed by heat. The bonus of this step is gaining extra flavor.

2 cups rolled oats
1 cup raw, unsalted almonds (or hazelnuts, pecans or walnuts)
2 Tbsp coconut oil
½ cup raw honey
½ cup tahini
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
½ cup unsulfured dried fruit (raisins, dates, figs, prunes, apricots, cranberries or a combination), roughly chopped
1½ cups puffed, whole-grain cereal (such as rice puffs)
¼ tsp flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 325° F.

Line a brownie pan with parchment paper.

Place the oats and almonds on a rimmed baking sheet, trying to keep them as separate as possible, and bake, stirring once or twice, until the oats are golden and have a toasted aroma, 12 to 15 minutes.

Remove from the oven, let cool and roughly chop the almonds.

In a small saucepan, melt the coconut oil over low heat. Add the honey, tahini and vanilla; whisk thoroughly until fully combined.

Remove saucepan from the heat.

In a large bowl, combine the cooled oats and chopped almonds with selected dried fruit, puffed cereal and salt. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir quickly to mix.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared brownie pan and, using slightly damp hands, press it firmly into the pan, especially around the edges and corners.

Set the pan in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up, then remove and slice into 14 bars.

Store the bars in a tightly sealed container in the fridge for up two weeks or wrap them individually for to-go snacks.

Reprinted from Naturally Nourished: Healthy, Delicious Meals Made with Everyday Ingredients. Book and photos ©2017 by Sarah Britton.

This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Natural Awakenings.

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