Lunch Favorites Made Healthier

With school finally in-session, and in-person for most students, it got me going down memory lane and thinking about school lunches from my own childhood. I brown-bagged it most of my early years, and what I remember to be my favorite, kind of makes me laugh now.

Anyway, I thought what fun to ask my RD friends what their favorites were and if they would change them at all if eaten today or if they made them for someone else.

Chicken Roll on White Bread

First up, was my favorite. Yep, I enjoyed chicken, but as processed as it could get: chicken roll. And it was simply eaten on white bread with lots of ketchup and no veggie in sight. However, if I were to make this today for my grandkids, I would swap the chicken roll for either sliced grilled chicken breast or fresh roasted turkey, and the white bread for whole wheat. Would love if they would go for some added avocado and tomato slices, and regular mayo. But, have no issue with simply keeping the ketchup if that’s what they’d prefer.

[SEE: 5 Easy Snacks for School Lunches — That Grown-ups Will Love Too.]

Mac and Cheese

Leslie Bonci, registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and creator of Active Eating Advice By Leslie, told me that mac and cheese straight from the box was her favorite as a kid. Today, she says, “I would still make according to the package but add in a pureed can of cannellini beans to add for creaminess and use 2% milk and grated Parmesan cheese for flavor. These tweaks amp up the protein, fiber and add a vegetable as well.”

Another mac and cheese eater as a kid was Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut. She still claims to be eating it, but nowadays typically using bean-based pasta as her base. “You can actually buy a version of this in a box if you don’t want to make your own,” says Gorin. “Then I load the mac and cheese up with veggies. My favorite is to add in caramelized chopped onions and halved grape tomatoes.”

Grilled Cheese

“My childhood favorite was a really greasy grilled cheese; lots of butter on the bread, white bread, of course, and really oily cheddar cheese,” states Tara Collingwood, a sports dietitian in Orlando. “I now make it healthier by using less butter, using whole grain bread, adding tomato for some veggie and using Havarti cheese, which is not quite as oily at cheddar, or I might use the reduced fat cheddar sometimes.”

[See: Quick and Healthy Dinner Ideas From Nutritionists.]

Bologna-Chip Sandwich

Funny enough, Jackie Newgent’s, a plant-forward culinary nutritionist and author of “The Clean and Simple Diabetes Cookbook,” favorite lunch as a kid was bologna on white bread stuffed with greasy potato chips.

Today, she says, “I do a plant-based BLT sandwich on organic, whole grain bread. Instead of bologna, I make well-seasoned portabella ‘bacon,’ which provides that meaty savoriness — as well as crispness and saltiness instead of those potato chips. I then stuff it with tomato, baby arugula and fresh basil and mint — and add a nice smear of mayo mixed with a bit of lemon zest and black pepper for more flavor.”

Talk about a sandwich upgrade!

Cream Cheese Sandwich

Bonnie Taub-Dix, creator of and author of “Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table,” enjoyed cream cheese on white bread with the crust removed as a kid. Fast forward to today, and now her cream cheese has become melted cheese (usually mozzarella) and not only is the crust included, but according to Taub-Dix, “the crustier the bread, the better!”

Also, her updated version includes a slice or two of tomato plus some sort of greens like spinach or fresh basil.

Spaghetti and Marinara Sauce

Patricia Bannan, nationally recognized registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “From Burnout to Balance,” loved spaghetti and marinara sauce — always a childhood favorite. She even loved it cold the next day for lunch. According to Bannan, “today when I make it, I always add in veggies for a boost of fiber and nutrition. It can be as simple as adding in a frozen bag of veggie mix when I’m cooking. My 4-year-old enjoys it in her lunch box too.”

[SEE: Plant-Based Diet Ideas.]

Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

“My favorite lunch was the classic PB&J, white bread plus peanut butter (with sugar and hydrogenated oil) plus grape or strawberry jelly,” states DJ Blatner, registered dietitian nutritionist and author of “The Superfood Swap.”

Today she still loves it but has definitely upped its nutrition. “I make it with sprouted whole grain bread plus natural nut butter plus real fruit like strawberry slices, grape halves, banana slices or blueberries,” says Blatner.

Turkey and Cheese Sandwich

For Samantha Cassetty, registered dietitian nutritionist and co-author of “Sugar Shock,” it was white bread, mayo, deli turkey lunchmeat and American cheese.

“This is about as processed as it gets, and generally, we know that it’s healthier to limit processed foods, like processed meat.” says Cassetty. “My easy upgrade is to use 100% whole wheat bread, store-bought rotisserie chicken, romaine lettuce and mayo. The occasional deli turkey lunchmeat is fine, but for everyday eats, this is a healthier way to go. These days, I skip the cheese, but you could add a slice of Swiss or cheddar, which are less processed than American cheese.”

Tuna Salad on a Roll

Lisa Young, author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” private practice RDN and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University in New York City, loved tuna salad on a white roll for lunch. According to Young, “a healthier and tastier version is tuna mixed with hummus on whole grain toast topped with lettuce, tomato and avocado. Now I love adding vegetables and whole grains to my lunches, a far cry from what I did as a kid.”

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