10 lunch box treats you can feel good (OK, better) about

Some days it is harder than others to remind myself that my son isn’t just a nutritional equation.

Because as parents, we are bombarded with advice, tips, techniques, rules and — let’s not forget — guilt about what we should and should not be feeding our children.

All of which makes it tempting to reduce parenting — at least the culinary component of parenting — to an equation. Feed them enough greens or whole grains or red veggies — or is orange better? — add a dash of exotic seasonings and as few treats as possible, and you’re all but guaranteed a perfectly nourished child with an impeccable palate.

If only any aspect of parenting was that simple…

Of course it isn’t. And as we all know all too well, parenting isn’t about chasing perfection. Even though we all beat ourselves up for never attaining it.

Parenting is about teaching broad lessons and having fun and enjoying life and each other. Easy to say, so very hard to do.

So with that in mind, I share my list of compromises — or what I call peace keeping foods. These are the “treats” I slip into my son’s lunch that he really considers treats, yet I can still feel good about.

No, it doesn’t include kale chips. I know there are plenty of parents who rave about how their precocious darlings think kale chips or beet dip are “just like” ice cream and Snickers!

Good for them. For the rest of us, there are these:

  • Popcorn. Seriously. Even if it’s drenched in butter or dusted with powdered “cheese,” popcorn is still a whole grain. So you have that going for you. And it’s yummy warm or room temp, so it’s easy to pack.
  • Pretzels. Grab a bag of spelt or other whole-grain pretzels, then pair them with a container of no-sugar jam or hummus for dipping. Protein (or fruit-like substance) and whole grains. All good.
  • Rice cakes. Remember those horrible things from the ’80s? They don’t exist anymore. Today’s rice cakes are whole grain and tasty. Grab some cinnamon-sugar or caramel varieties for a sweet treat.
  • Jerky. As a treat? Why not? My kid considers anything meaty a treat (mostly because it’s the antithesis of vegetables, but whatever). Grab some sweet barbecue or teriyaki; it’s a lean, filling protein.
  • Smoothies. Grocers sell all sorts of them these days. Some are loaded with sugar (so read the labels!), but they also have tons of fiber and fruit, maybe even veggies.
  • Bars. These take some research if you want a variety without tons of fat and sugar. But if you read labels, you can find some packed with protein and fiber from seeds and nuts and unsweetened fruit.
  • Pudding. Really. Pudding is milk and sugar. The dairy is good for them and the sugar… Well, that’s just the price of admission with this treat. As long as it’s not an all-day, every-day treat, it’s all good.
  • Gelatin. I’m not a fan of the sugar-free stuff. Artificial sweeteners and all. But inexpensive plain gelatin is easily mixed with unsweetened fruit juice (most packages have the recipe) for an easy-to-pack treat.
  • Tortilla chips. Even the fried ones. Look, corn is a whole grain, even when it’s cooked in oil and doused with salt. It’s also yummy and might entice kids to eat avocado or veg-rich salsa. It’s all good.
  • Chocolate chips. No, not by themselves. Use them as the selling point for a “parfait.” In a container with a tight-fitting lid, layer crushed graham crackers, fresh fruit (raspberries, blueberries, sliced strawberries, blackberries, whatever) and yogurt. Then top with a sprinkle of chocolate chips. It won’t take many to impress a kid. But just a few will get them to eat all those other good-for-them foods.

J.M. Hirsch

is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at

. His upcoming cookbook, 

Beating the Lunch Box Blues

, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include 

High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking


Venturesome Vegan Cooking.

He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

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