Help me feed a teenage boy healthy school lunches
August 13, 2013 5:24 PM   Subscribe

I pack a lunch every day for a 15 year old boy (not my son - I have only been doing this for a year so I don't intimately know all of his likes and dislikes). This year he has asked for "healthier" lunches, as he plays sports and is pretty small in stature but wants to get bigger and stronger. I have NO idea how to get any healthier than what I am doing, given his particularities:

- Only brown bag. He refuses to carry a lunchbox or any kind of reusable containers. I understand his teenage need for cool factor, so I am not going to push him on this.
- He has 25 minutes to get from class to his locker to lunch, eat, and get back to class.
- He has access to microwaves but doesn't like to use them because it wastes his eating time.
- No refrigerator. His lunch stays in his locker until noonish.
- He doesn't like hard boiled eggs.

Currently his lunch looks like sandwich, chips, fruit, yogurt, and other "snack" item to fill him up or tide him over before soccer practice. For example, this week he had a turkey and cheese sandwich on wheat bread, small portion of Sunchips, a cut up mango, Voskos yogurt, a Nutrigrain bar, and a Nature Valley Protein granola bar. He says he would eat more than this if he could, but he doesn't have time.

I feel like there is too much processed food, even though I know he is eating better than 99% of the boys at school, but I don't know how to replace it given the constraints. I am willing to make some things from scratch (have made sandwich bread and granola bars in the past) but I need ideas & recipes.

posted by raspberrE to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
More protein. Put twice as much turkey on his sandwich.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 5:26 PM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

Bags of carrots, edamame, sliced cucumber, and a pack/tub of hummus.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:27 PM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

posted by lakeroon at 5:29 PM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]

Hummus in a small disposable container; frozen. Eat with chips or crunchy veg (carrots, celery, zukes).

Chick pea of the sea; like tuna salad without Tuna.

Avocado or guacamole.


Go to a gfs or Costco or party city; there you can get larger brown bags & condiment or soup cups. Fill with guac, hummus, or whatever, freeze & pop in lunch to defrost in locker.
posted by tilde at 5:29 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing that occurs to me is that although he may not want to carry that lunchbox or whatever (I wouldn't have wanted to either) he COULD get something like a small Igloo cooler (which come in all sizes) that could just live in his locker if space allows. That way, he can keep a wider variety of temperature controlled foods while still brown bagging it. Bag goes in the cooler at arrival and comes out at lunch. Assuming lunch is pretty cold when he leaves home it should still be about the same when eating. Just an idea.
posted by blaneyphoto at 5:33 PM on August 13, 2013 [17 favorites]

pasta salad with cut up cheese and whatever else he likes in there?
posted by gaspode at 5:45 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Take whatever you're already packing for him and add something filling to supplement it. Instead of plain chips, make small sandwiches of whole grain pita chips and nut butter (as a snack, not instead of the the turkey sandwich.) Instead of just cut-up mango, do mango and banana.
If you're willing to bake, give a nutrient-dense cookie made with granola, peanut butter, chocolate chips.
Drinkable yogurt is good for this kind of lunch.
posted by third rail at 5:53 PM on August 13, 2013

Wow, that's a lot of stuff to chew in a short period of time. I would make a GIANT wrap sandwich with all the fixin's and yes, more protein and more lean cheese, mozz and swiss and provolone. For someone who is in sports, you could even spread a thin layer of peanut butter or almond butter instead of mayo. My brother used to like peanut butter, mustard and bologna (okay, that's not so healthy, but maybe a beef bologna). If he will eat it, put on some dark greens and sprouts, maybe some shredded carrot.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:56 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have similar problems and have found avocado/guacamole and nuts to be really helpful solutions. Emerald and Planters both make little single-serving nut packets. And in our produce section, there are packages of little single serving squeeze packs of guacamole (probably easier for him to handle than a whole avocado given his time constraints).
posted by hydropsyche at 5:59 PM on August 13, 2013

Personally, I would expect a fifteen year old to pack his own lunches, but if you must, perhaps ask him what he specifically wants...rather than just accept a vague request of, "healthier".
posted by Nibiru at 6:00 PM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]

Definitely add in some of those little tubs of peanut butter, assuming this is allowed by his school. Those have been pretty standard protein boosts from my middle school track team to college rugby as they go with a lot of stuff (even just off your fingers) and last forever. Generally speaking: more protein. Jerky? A second sandwich (or a bigger one, like on a hoagie-sized roll?) If you can afford it, I would swap in a clif bar for the nutrigrain bar. We drank a ton of Parmalat milk boxes as kind of ensure-lights growing up-- super uncool, but maybe there's another drinkable product that's okay for a teenage boy that's cooler? I would not at all suggest protein powder mixes or muscle milk, but maybe there's a middle ground.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:08 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, parent of sporty teen and I'm totally with you on the brown bag scene. They're carrying around so much crap already and it's hard to make room for food!

My simple suggestion is to give him a second sandwich to eat before practice, like PB&J. He's burning through 500-1000 calories in a 2 hour practice. An extra granola bar bar isn't going to cut it.

Trail mix also has high protein and calories per size and eats quickly (like, 1/4 cup is a serving, so a half cup is like 300+ calories, lots of protein and "good" fat and can disappear in five minutes).
posted by drlith at 6:09 PM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sub in sweet potato chips for one of the bars; those aren't doing much for him.

Sweet potato chips!

1. Turn your oven to 450 and take two sweet potatoes.
2. Cut the potatoes either into half-inch discs or spears of vaguely the same size.
3. Coat them with a bit of oil (I use a tablespoon for both potatoes) and sprinkle with salt and pepper, then lay them out on a cookie sheet.
4. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.

You can make these in huge batches and refrigerate through the week.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:11 PM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Seconding the second sandwich to eat before practice/after school. My kid seems to eat an entire second lunch as soon as school is over.
posted by biscuits at 6:19 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm nowhere near a teen but for compact protein snacks I buy at Costco the 18 count box of "Pure Protein High Protein Bar". 20 grams of protein, 3 grams of sugar. I think they're more substantial than granola bars, they even feel heavier. Just a thought.
posted by forthright at 6:43 PM on August 13, 2013

I'd talk to him about what kind of healthier does he want. I'd consider making a wrap with a large quantity of protein in it. If you make it nice and large it seems like less of a time commitment than that great variety you are giving him. So consider a tortilla wrap with a lot of turkey, some cheese, and lettuce and tomato with some ranch dressing or some such, and make it slightly bigger than you would care to eat.
posted by advicepig at 6:59 PM on August 13, 2013

Thanks all for the responses so far.

He has expressed reservations about nuts, guac/avocado, and veggies in general - but he is also notoriously picky and often ends up loving meals that he says beforehand he will hate. He also is pretty willing to try anything that I tell him is "good protein."

@ jetlagaddict, Clif bars are a great suggestion. Don't know why I haven't thought of that... I guess because I don't really eat them. But I bet he will like them.

@ drlith, Second sandwich suggestion is also a duh-why-didn't-I-think-of-that suggestion. There is a PB & J nestled right up to the turkey sandwich in tomorrow's lunch!

@ forthright, Thanks for the specific suggestion. I'm a Sam's girl but I'll check out their selection of something similar.

@ Nibiru... It's kind of a complicated situation that I don't want to broadcast on the internet but he doesn't live with me and doesn't have the resources/facilities to pack it himself. I could buy the ingredients and have him pack it but the issue of "what he should eat" is still the same. And I have tried pushing him on what he means by "healthier" but he doesn't really even know - by asking me for healthier food, he is also kind of asking for nutrition advice I think. He literally can't think of anything specific when I ask him WHAT he wants, even when he goes grocery shopping with me. I am just concerned about filling him up and keeping it reasonably healthy.

Again, thanks all. Looking forward to more suggestions like the above.
posted by raspberrE at 7:02 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding the second sandwich to eat before practice/after school. My kid seems to eat an entire second lunch as soon as school is over.

This is what my son termed the "pubermeal," the after-school/before-dinner food required by every active growing manchild.

Don't think of it as packing a meal and a snack but of packing two meals. Double the sandwiches & skip the chewy bars. Hummus spread instead of mayo, grilled sliced chicken w/greens in a wrap, a half&half peanut butter/greek yogurt spread with frozen blueberries on sandwich bread. Skip the chips altogether, this is a great time to get smart eating habits started - he's hungry! - & chips don't need to be a daily thing.
posted by headnsouth at 7:10 PM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

If he doesn't mind cold meat, they make pouches and cans of pre-cooked boneless/skinless chicken breast and tuna fish that'll provide a great lean protein kick.

In lieu of the (or in addition to) the granola bar, you might take a look around the nutrition section at some of the protein bars targeted towards weightlifters and heavy exercisers. They also make meal replacement bars that might be good for something to scarf down before or after practice that'd be in that section. Obviously work with him to figure out what he wants (some are low sugar and high protein, some are pretty much candy bars that also happen to have some protein).

Rather than trying to get him to pick out specific things, maybe figure out what his goals are? Like if he's trying to add muscle for sports, you'd want a lot of protein which would be things like meat and nuts. If he just wants to feel more full, or to feel fuller longer, that'd be high-fiber things like veggies and whole-grain carbs.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:47 PM on August 13, 2013

Just thought of another idea. These are more like a snack but my rock climbing friends make these and they are delicious! It's a recipe you can tinker with until you find a combination you like. The basic idea is one cup of nuts to one cup of dried fruit. The nuts could be almonds, pecans, walnuts. The fruit is usually dates, but you can add raisins, dried apricots. Sometimes my friends add coconut, peanut butter, oats or cocoa powder. They made some delicious apricot, crystallized ginger date ones. Anyway, if you are motivated to make them, they are healthier and more delicious than most store bought power bars in my opinion.
posted by biscuits at 9:08 PM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

Would giving him milk money help? It's filling and has lots of calories, protein, and calcium. Or, if you go with the cooler in the locker thing, give him a Milk Chug to store in there. It would also help keep the food cold.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 1:50 AM on August 14, 2013

He needs to fuel both his sports performance and his growth.
Calcium and iron are super important (for building bones & preventing stress fractures and iron for oxygen transport to the muscles). All other vitamins are obviously important as well for healthy growing up.

Healthy food means less processed food. I'd skip the chips and check all the other labels for hidden sugar, trans and saturated fat and sodium. Those snacks are okay as occasional treats.

What does he drink during the day? I think it's great that he asks for healthy food, this is the perfect time for him to learn about nutrition, what healthier choices for snacks and drinks look like. It also sounds like he might actually enjoy good food once he gets used to the idea (per your update) - that's a great start.

How we experience certain foods changes as we grow up and things that used to taste weird or had a funny texture might actually taste delicious as adults. I wonder if hard boiled eggs fit into this category. I'd try to cut them up and put in salads and wraps. He might like them this way. A whole hard boiled egg that has been sitting around all day and needs to be peeled has a bit of an odor that might be off putting to him and discourage him from eating it this way.

Depending on his height/weight/exercise level his daily calorie needs likely range somewhere between 2000 and 5000. He's growing and he is hungry!
On one can check how much to eat from each food group based on gender, age and activity level.

My ideas for meals that include more dairy for calcium and iron (comes from meats, fish, leafy greens and iron fortified cereals):

- Banana cereal smoothie ((boiled) cereals with added iron + lower fat milk/yoghurt + banana is the base. Add flax, cinnamon, honey or peanut butter to taste. Puree until smooth.) (Reuse some bottle from the grocery store for easy transport and a good shake before consumption).

-Black bean wrap (boiled beans and corn kernels, brown rice or quinoa, seasoned with little salt, pepper and lime/lemon juice. Wrap it in a whole wheat tortilla, add avocado, cheese and baby spinach/lettuce). (One could add some more lightly fried veggies to the beans: bell pepper, celery, carrots along with onions and garlic).

- White bean chicken salad (roasted chicken, white beans, tomato, onion, basil + dressing (olive oil, vinegar, mustard, ground pepper, lemon juice). I like this recipe.

-Roasted chicken breast pitas (Chicken, cucumber, chives, (lettuce/arugula), yoghurt, vinegar/lemon juice, salt & pepper. Cut up & mixed and stuffed into whole grain pita pockets).

-Turkey apple pitas (Sliced turkey, sliced apple, lettuce, cheese, yoghurt, mustard, salt & pepper stuffed into pita pockets).

-Veggie muffins (savory muffins with carrots, zucchini, bell peppers, pumpkin, corn or peas. Contain eggs and milk. Cheese, chicken, bacon optional).

-Pasta salad (pasta, tomato, feta, olives, basil, light dressing with yoghurt, olive oil, lemon juice/vinegar, salt & pepper. Swap the feta for cheddar and the olives for broccoli and add cut up hard boiled eggs to mix it up).

I know most of those things require some prep & cooking time, maybe they would fit into your meal plan as well so it would be just cooking bigger portions for the both of you (for dinner/lunch). Maybe he could cook some of it himself. Just an idea.

Blaneyphoto's cooler idea is great btw.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:55 AM on August 14, 2013

In the interests of fewer bites-- handmade granola made with nuts or nut butters for his yogurt. And yeah, trail mix, trail mix, trail mix. Oh and sweet potato fries pair with hummus in a delicious, delicious way...but they're really heavy and maybe not a great food before practice?

If this is something you're willing to invest in, there are a lot of nutritionists who specialize in young adults, especially athletes. Even if he's not a great athlete, it still might be a worthwhile exercise to get a baseline on just how many calories he needs and how to get those into him in a healthy way. (Also some of them have websites and blogs, if you just wanted to do some free research by googling around.) I remember getting the basics of how food works in school, but I missed some huge issues that were really damaging when I became actually athletic in college. They often have good sample meal plans and lists of additional snack foods.

I know it can be tough to cram enough food into teens-- my twin used to eat bowls of ice cream as a snack before breakfast while losing weight. It seems like you're doing a great thing for him, and I hope this is helpful.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:00 AM on August 14, 2013

Nancy Clark's sports nutrition guidebook is an excellent resource and will give you some good ideas.
posted by coffee_monster at 6:52 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

FYI, there may be healthier alternative to Clif bars that this kid will like -- here's a link to a review of 30 protein bars. Personally, I like the Power Crunch bars the best.
posted by elmay at 7:50 AM on August 14, 2013

When my husband was an ultramarathon runner, he'd eat cold boiled small potatoes rolled in sea salt and (not kidding here) powdered sugar. Might skip the sugar for this boy. The potatoes are a fabulous energy source, the salt good for athletes, and they're super easy to make and to eat.

Maybe make a smoothie the night before (Greek yogurt, frozen fruit, protein powder, peanut butter, greens if you've got a Vitamix, raw oatmeal, fresh fruit, seeds) and put it in an empty yogurt container in the freezer. In the morning, add it to his lunch and it'll serve as an ice pack until lunch, and should be melted enough to drink or eat with a spoon.

I pack a lot of leftovers for my athlete-daughter: rice dishes, pasta dishes, salmon.

Super nice of you to feed this boy, and to take such good care of him. You're a saint.
posted by Capri at 10:17 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

you are getting some great ideas here, but i wanted to mention the brown bag thing might be as much about not having to keep up with a lunch box as it is not carrying one. brown bag just gets trashed after lunch - lunch box he has to go back to his locker afterwards.

I say all that to say a second sandwich is a great idea, but he might want it in its own bag so he can leave it in his locker until after school. or the second pre practice meal could be something small enough it stays in his backpack throughout class.
posted by domino at 11:16 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mother of a (girl) teen here. She eats a lot, and prefers in this order:
# 1: Pasta-salads (packed in washed yogurt containers, which she can throw away): pasta, olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and whatever I have: tomatoes, cucumber, tuna, chicken, basil, bell-pepper, anything. She will eat cold bolognese from the night before, if I give it to her. I keep a stack of plastic forks for this.
# 2: two homemade burgers: whole wheat roll (important, the whole wheat seems more filling to her), normal burger filling
# 3: two other sandwiches in whole wheat rolls, preferably ham, chicken, BLT, potato, always garnished with lettuce, lots of mayo, tomato slices

She always gets some (seasonal) fruit with this, though sometimes "fruit" is carrots.

If I'm out of whole wheat rolls there will be complaints ticking in on my phone during the day. Ordinary bread/rolls are not filling enough.

After this, she still needs a lot of food after school, before dinner
posted by mumimor at 12:03 PM on August 14, 2013

You want him to feel full, and also to be getting good nutrients.

Homemade Clif bars would be a good option for getting more calories, protein, etc. into him.

But also make sure he drinks enough, so that his body thinks it's full in the time lag between eating and finally not feeling hungry.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:22 PM on August 14, 2013

Wow, great ideas everyone!

I am definitely going to try some of the homemade powerbar/energy ball recipes people suggested.

For now, two sandwiches is a winner (and domino - great point about packing the second one in a separate bag).

I also appreciate the suggestions and links about nutrition... he definitely only has vague ideas of what "healthy" means so I will try to share some of this info in a teen-boy-friendly way. And will also encourage him to drink more water as wenestvedt pointed out.

Thanks guys! This was a great first question for me.
posted by raspberrE at 2:26 PM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

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