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Bento boxes make for easy, nutritious back-to-school lunches

And avoid all sugar — including corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, agave, fruit juices (even unsweetened), brown sugar, and rice and cane syrup, advises licensed nutritionist
Example of a bento box. Supplied photo

Dear Nutritionist,

I’m looking for some tips to handle back to school mornings, snacks, and lunches. More and more I think cereal is a wash and the same with sandwiches and I’m at a loss for better alternatives. Do you have any ideas that don’t take too much time and are healthy for the kids? 


Dear Lydia,

Thank you for your question. It’s obviously super relevant this time of year for a number of readers. So I’ll jump right in.

While I don’t recommend cereal and sandwiches as optimal, they are not the worst of the worst. The worst detriment for your child’s health is sugar. As long as you stick to products that don’t have any added sugars, you will be making a great improvement this school year.

This includes the obvious offenders like straight-up sugar and corn syrup, as well as ingredients like honey, maple syrup, agave, fruit juices (even unsweetened), brown sugar, and rice and cane syrups. Even if they’re organic! I know many nutritionists give these a stamp of approval because they’re “natural,” but so is cocaine. That doesn’t mean we should feed it to our kids.

Sugars spike blood sugar. This, in turn, causes excitability and mood and thought dysregulation. You may think your kids are immune to this, but if you remove it for a month then give them a super sweet treat, your mind will be blown. The behavioural connection is very real and very normal. It’s not a food we are biologically adapted to eat.

At the same time, as it stimulates us, sugar also robs several nutrients in the process, and leaves us lacking energy and super sleepy a short time later. It will be hard to focus. We may fidget in our seats. We may drift or daydream. For some it can cause real problems learning. This is because the sugar that was consumed got packed away in fat cells and did nothing to give lasting energy. 

I know we have been taught that sugar is the brain’s preferred food. We were also taught that mercury in our mouth was safe and bacteria were bad. Now we know both to be inverse. There are a number of recommendations that did damage because of faulty nutritional science, but none so much as the sugar and fructose sham, which you can learn more about here

So sweetened and artificially sweetened foods are out. If you child prefers these, remember that taste buds change over time. The less we get sugary food, the less we crave it. Over time it becomes much more manageable. 

If you are going to do this, it’s best to have a great arsenal of alternatives and use only a bit of whole fruit as a sweet after a meal if a taste of sweet is desired. Learning to bake with cricket meal, monk fruit, almond and coconut flours, and coconut oil will provide much better alternatives to store bought sugary treats. 


For breakfasts I agree cereals are not optimal, because I don’t think grains are meant for human consumption. They are inflammatory and very high glycemic, meaning they promote weight gain and also hunger a short time later. Toast is the same, whether it’s whole wheat or not. It still spikes blood sugar and doubly so when it’s topped with ridiculously sweet spreads that are so popular today. 

If you want to do bread or toast, the best is a really dense, nutty, authentic sourdough or low carb toast with higher protein. I know Costco carries two such brands. And this should be eaten with eggs. They are a perfect protein and full of nutrients. I suggest leaving this for the weekends when you can take your time to make it nice, with some fresh fruit, eggs, toast, and maybe some meat or hemp pancakes. 

My suggestion for weekday breakfasts is a smoothie. They are super fast and easy to make, portable, and can be packed with nutrients to get everyone off to a good start. 

However, I do not recommend fruit juices and sweetened yogurts as healthy ingredients. I recommend a product called progressive VegEssentials All in One (no company interests). I like it because it’s very palatable, it’s free of dairy or other allergenic foods, and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals. It’s like taking Omega 3s, probiotics, a green juice, and several multi vitamins and herbal supplements all in one serving. And it works out to about $4 per person per serving. That’s not bad value, given what’s in it. 

My vanilla berry smoothie recipe looks like this for an adult or teen. For a younger child you can gauge, depending on their appetite. 

1 cup of your favourite unsweetened milk

1 scoop of vanilla protein powder

(any matcha powder for adults goes here)

1 tbsp coconut oil, softened in microwave

½ banana (if the person struggles with weight, substitute with whole earth or monk fruit sweetener)

1 cup frozen (unsweetened) berries or fruit of choice

Ice if you like the frosty drink texture

*adults can add 1 tbsp matcha powder to this for a great caffeine kick

Alternately you can do a chocolate almond one:

1 cup your favourite unsweetened milk 

(espresso for adults goes here)

1 scoop of chocolate protein powder

1 tbsp cacao powder

Additional monk fruit (if needed for the preferred taste)

1 tbsp coconut oil, softened in microwave

2 tbsp almond butter

½ banana (if the person struggles with weight, substitute with whole earth or monk fruit sweetener)

Ice if you like the frosty drink  texture

*adults can add 1-2 shots of espresso to this for a great caffeine kick

Be sure that you put the ingredients in in the order I listed them. Liquids go first, then powders, then soft ingredients, then fruit, then ice. 

My suggestion is to allow every family member to make their own smoothie. This will encourage them to learn a new skill that will go to college and adulthood with them. It will also help them learn about healthy foods and ingredients, and take some ownership for their own health. It’s never too early to start! 

And smoothies are a very safe food for kids to make as long as you show them from the very start that we measure everything, the lid must be on tight, and the hands never go inside! It will only take a month of doing this breakfast routine for the whole family to have it down.


My go-to for kids lunches are bento boxes. The photo above shows one variation, but you can find many pictures here to get an idea of what I am talking about. Basically, they are self-contained boxes that are divided up into small sections to hold various foods. The combos are endless, but I will give you a few ideas to start with.

For nutritional purposes, I try to make sure my bentos contain:

  • Raw veg crudite (usually with a dip)
  • Small side of cut up fruit
  • A good portion of protein
  • Crunchy or salty something
  • Starchy something if the child is active and doesn’t have weight problems (reduce or replace with protein if weight troubles)

Crudites and dip options:

  • Celery sticks and almond butter with coconut oil and monk fruit (also a protein)
  • Carrot and pepper sticks with roasted garlic baba ganoush (eggplant dip)
  • Cucumber rounds with paleo ranch dip
  • Cauliflower or broccoli florets with any hummus (also a protein)
  • Raw zucchini slices with guacamole

Fruit options:

Any fruit you can think of, cut up

Protein Options:

  • Boiled or devilled eggs 
  • Quality deli meats sliced up (like salami or sausage)
  • Sunflower or pumpkin seeds (best toasted and salted)
  • Roasted chick peas
  • Almond butter fat bombs
  • Left over dinner meat
  • Sliders or meatballs
  • Bean salad or sprouts
  • Cheese cubes or cottage cheese
  • Tuna or salmon salad
  • Yogurt

Carb Options:

  • Sweet potato crackers (with cheese)
  • Organic corn chips (with homemade salsa)
  • Roasted sweet potatoes or squash
  • Potato salad
  • Toasted chick peas
  • Beans or bean salad

Side Options:

  • Olives
  • Pickles
  • Peppers
  • Condiments
  • Fermented veggies

The combos are endless. There are a number of great ideas here. What makes these so great is they are finger-type foods, which kids love. They can be eaten while studying or working and aren’t sloppy. You can hit a number of flavour profiles easily. And it’s easy to engage kids in helping to make them because they are fun and unique. Adults might find they work well for work lunches also, to help you keep on track with your own dietary goals.

These are just a few suggestions, but they are tested and work well in my practice. I hope you find value in them and it gets your school year off to a great start!


Nonie Nutritionista

Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental health issues. Check out her website here.

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