Lunchbox Lessons: DIY Lunchables

Photos courtesy of Michelle Dudash, RDN.

When her daughter Scarlet requested Lunchables to bring to preschool, Michelle Dudash, RDN, author of Clean Eating for Busy Families, said, “I gasped.”

But she didn’t give in. Michelle knew that she could create healthier versions of the pre-made meal kits. “I said, ‘OK, mommy can make you those.'”

Demand for the Lunchables product line, notorious for being low in nutrients and containing excessive amounts of salt, sugar, fat and additives, is still high among American consumers. Sales exceeded $1 billion in the 52-week period that ended July 14, according to the marketing firm IRI.

But it’s entirely possible to pack homemade lunches that are convenient and budget-friendly for parents, attractive to kids, and far more nutritious than Lunchables.

Building a better lunchbox means including fresh produce, choosing minimally processed foods, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein and opting for foods low in saturated fat, sodium and added sugar.

Create visual appeal by serving lunch in a reusable, bento-box-style tray with compartments.

Michelle’s daughter enjoys eating these easy-to-pack, delicious lunches, along with sides of fresh fruit and vegetables:

  • Pizza bento: 100 percent whole-wheat sandwich thins cut into wedges, served separately with pasta sauce and shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese.
  • Deli bento: rolled natural deli turkey served with whole-grain crackers and cheese slices
  • Snack box: Hummus dip and/or sunflower butter served with whole-grain crackers
  • Almond butter and jelly “quesadillas” or “roll-ups”

To save time prepping and cleaning, Michelle recommends washing and cutting produce on Sunday, then packing a few days of lunches at once.

“Always keep a variety of finger-friendly fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables on hand,” she advises. “In late summer and early fall, opt for apples, grapes, pears, cucumber, celery, carrots, broccoli and cantaloupe. Keep fruit cups and canned fruit on hand for emergencies when you’re out of fresh.”

And the beverage of choice? Water or milk.

“Once or twice per week I’ll throw in a little ‘treat’ — like whole-grain fig bars, some bunny crackers, or whole-grain animal crackers,” she says.

Michelle is a fan of these easy-to-use and easy-to-clean lunchbox products:

  •  Bentgo Kids Prints Leak-Proof Kids Lunch box has lots of fun prints and patterns that showcase your child’s personality. With 5 practical compartments portioned perfectly for a child’s appetite to encourage a healthy and balanced meal.
  • Lunchskins reusable sandwich bags eliminate plastic disposable baggies and unzip completely to allow for a thorough washing. $10.99 for a multi-pack at Target.
  • Easy Lunchboxes are three-compartment bento boxes especially good for the budget conscious, at $13.95 for a four-pack. Safe for the microwave, too. The lack of frills makes them perfect for any age, from toddler to adult.
  • Emily Press Self-laminating Labels allow you to put your child’s name (especially the youngsters) on precious containers and water bottles, ensuring their return home. And they won’t wash away. $9.99 for 24 labels at