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Cures for the lunchbox blues

From Registered Dietitian and School Lunch Specialist, Shannon Crocker

Parents are getting tired of making the same packed lunch for their kids, only to see them bring home half-eaten sandwiches or an untouched container of veggies.

You may have started off the school year with creative lunches and sensational snack ideas, but after a few months, both you and your kids are totally bored with the same old thing. On top of that, you’re probably losing the never-ending struggle between their fleeting infatuation with the latest pre-packaged, heavily marketed food of the month and your nagging conscience telling you to make sure nutritious, tasty foods are included in every lunch.

As a busy mother of two who volunteers at her kids’ school, and a Registered Dietitian, Shannon Crocker sees firsthand what kids are bringing in their lunch boxes - the good, the bad and the ugly! She’s come up with five easy ideas for parents to cure the lunchbox blues with healthier versions of kids’ favourites:

For kids who like store bought pre-made lunch kits

A healthier, homemade version of this kids favourite

Here’s how to make a fun lunch kit that kids can assemble themselves on weeknights.

Buy plastic or bento box style containers that are divided into sections.

Think of simple finger foods for each section. Remember kids don’t have a lot of time to assemble. They’re going to have to stuff it or stack it and eat it!

Here’s some ideas for each section of the divided container:

  • Canadian Cheddar, Mozzarella or Havarti.
  • Shredded carrot and diced celery or thinly sliced cucumber – to get some veggies in there!
  • Cooked chopped egg, black beans, leftover grilled chicken or BBQ steak.
  • Whole grain mini pitas, mini bagels, small wraps, or whole grain crackers to stuff, wrap or stack.

A time saving tip: Have these items ready to go in the fridge, in containers and the kids can pack it themselves the night before, choosing to mix and match their own ingredients.

For kids who like rice cereal and sugary granola bars

A homemade, no bake recipe your kids can help you with on a weeknight

Make a big batch using whole grains like oats and brown rice cereal and dried fruit. Homemade bars are less expensive and more nutritious than store-bought versions. Just cut into individually sized bars, wrap them and place them into a freezer bag and into the freezer. In the morning, place one into a reusable container and put it in their lunchbox. This is a great way to get your kids to eat whole grains, and it’s much less expensive than store-bought versions.

For kids who have a lunchtime drinking problem

Try fresh cold milk at school

As a volunteer in her kids' school, Shannon has noticed a lot of fruity flavoured drinks and fruit punch in the lunchroom. Parents do this because drink boxes are easy to grab and go. Some parents may think they are providing their child with fruit juice but when you look closely at the label, it’s often a concoction of sugar, water with food colouring and artificial flavours.

As a Registered Dietitian, Shannon’s best choices for lunchtime drinks are:

  1. Milk
  2. Water
  3. 100% juice

Many schools in Ontario are part of the Elementary School Milk Program, a program which makes cold milk (white or chocolate) available to students who register. It’s an easy way to ensure your kids are getting a healthy beverage delivered right to their school. Simple and enjoyable! Shannon herself is an ESMP parent volunteer!

For kids who love to dip

Give them healthy dips and healthy dippers

Bottom line – dipping is fun. Kids of all ages (and parents) love to dip. Dip adds an extra pizazz to everything from a stick of celery to a whole wheat cracker. Think outside of the lunchbox and get inspired by these great tips for dips and dippers from Shannon.

Here are some tips for dips:

  • Make your own ‘dessert style’ dip with plain Greek-style yogurt, a bit of brown sugar and a splash of vanilla. Instead of brown sugar, you can drizzle in some maple syrup, honey or chocolate milk syrup.
  • In a real hurry? Pack individual containers of yogurt.
  • Got a little more time? Make homemade milk pudding on the weekend.

Here are some tips for dippers:

  • Grapes, berries, pineapple chunks, melon chunks mango chunks, peeled mini/clementine orange sections.
  • Cinnamon baked pita wedges (brush with a little butter, sprinkle with cinnamon, cut into triangles, bake till crispy)
  • Whole grain pretzels
  • Dip apple slices and pear wedges in lemon juice before you pack so they don't brown!

For kids who like crunchy snacks

A wonderful mixture kids can make themselves

Pre-packaged salty snacks like chips, popcorn and nachos are making their way into lunch bags, especially with the giant boxes of single-serving chips that were just out for Halloween. If your kids like something crunchy in their lunch, get them to help you make their own munchie mix.

Put an array of healthy ingredients out on the table on the weekend and have them make their own crunchy medley. Store it in an airtight container and they can scoop some out into smaller containers for their lunch each day.

Switch up the ingredients each week to keep it interesting, like:

  • Air-popped popcorn
  • Whole grain cereal – wheat squares, o’s, puffs
  • Dried fruit – look for ones that are made without added sugars: apricots, raisins, cherries, apple, pear
  • Unsalted seeds – like pepitas or chia seeds
  • Unsalted roasted chick peas
  • Whole grain pretzels
  • Unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Whole grain mini crackers (e.g. fish, penguins)
    *For a special sweet hit to the mixture, you can include some dark chocolate chips

Every kid is different and so are their taste buds. No one cares that they eat balanced meals featuring all four food groups more than moms and dads. By using Shannon’s tips to cure the lunchbox blues you’ll be sure to keep your kids smiling, satisfied and strong all school-year long.