Ah, lunches from home - how do you keep them interesting so you don't cave and go out to eat, and your kids don't trade with their classmates or get a la carte unhealthy food from the school cafeteria?
This is, admittedly, an area in which I am always seeking to improve and would love your suggestions as well! I always pack lunches the night before because morning is crunch time.
My children are, at 4 and 6, still rather choosy about what they will eat. My husband only slightly less so.
For Sandwiches - yes, we do peanut butter and jelly (Helena was on a peanut-butter only kick for several years, as she refused to try jelly - now she likes grape jelly). I get the Skippy Peanut Butter, Natural Chunky or Skippy Peanut Butter, Natural Creamy (my kids only will eat creamy - no chunky for me!) because it spreads easier than the natural refrigerated peanut butters. I've tried the Smart Balance peanut butter but I don't care for the flavor. If you're a fan of natural refrigerated ones, I recommend Krema Natural Creamy Peanut Butter brand because it doesn't seem as stiff as the Smuckers one. For jelly, you can't beat the Smucker's Low Sugar Strawberry Preserves - it still has most strawberry chunks and best flavor of any preserves I've tried. My son is a big fan of peanut butter and sliced banana sandwiches. Peanut butter and honey sandwiches are also yummy. I briefly tried almond butter, but I didn't like it, and neither did anyone else at my house (ended up passing it on to a relative).
Both kids like ham or turkey with cheese (I prefer to slice from a block of reduced-fat cheddar, colby, or monterrey jack rather than use processed cheese slices). Hormel Natural Choice is a great nitrite-free lunchmeat. Oscar Meyer makes a nitrite-free one as well (which is usually cheaper). The health-food grocery stores carry yummy ones by Garret Farms and other places, but at $5-7 a pack are too pricy for me. I like using leftover rotisserie chicken either plain or made into chicken salad, though my kids still won't eat that. Egg salad whipped up from hardboiled eggs, mustard, mayo, onion, celery, and pickle relish is also finger-licking good to Brian and I. Neither child tolerates any kind of condiment. For the hubby and me, I use Smart Balance mayo, Hellman's canola mayo or low-fat mayo (which has the fewest calories but has high-fructose corn syrup, which is a turn-off for me). I also employ a variety of mustards, avocado, hummus, whatever keeps it interesting. Penzey's spices makes a great Sandwich Sprinkle if you want to easily season your sandwich (it's a little on the garlicky side). For reduced-calorie bread, try Healthy Life Dieter's Dream, Brownberry Healthfull, and Natural Ovens Right Weight breads. We also love Brownberry whole grain pitas (the Kangaroo ones are always hard and stale), whole-wheat low-carb tortillas (such as La Tortilla Factory), Brownberry or Pepperidge Farms Sandwich Thins (the kids love the Goldfish-shaped ones), Flat Out! wraps and folding flat breads. Of course, unlike the kids, I love adding veggies to my sandwiches: lettuces, tomatoes, sprouts, etc.
For homemade Lunchables - my kids adore Triscuits (the original, non-spiced ones) as well as Triscuit Thin Crisps, which are the more healthy options out there. All Bran Crackers are great, too. Of course they love Ritz crackers too, though I get those less often because they don't have any fiber worth mentioning. My husband will eat Rye Krisp or Wasa crackers (these are too hard and fibrous for even me) - he likes them spread with a Laughing Cow cheese wedge, which come in a wide variety of flavors. Again, slices of block cheese work well for lunches. We also find that Sargento low-fat mozzarella string cheese is the best one out there.
Besides the grain part of lunch, I always include a fruit or veggie, and for my son, often yogurt. My daughter begged me to get Go-gurt and those applesauce vacuum sealed pouches; however, I found both to be super messy. So I stick with little tubs of applesauce, the Natural versions with no added sugar, or my homemade applesauce in a container (to which I add only cinnamon). Of course, fresh fruit is ideal - bananas and apples travel well; for oranges, pears, and often apples, too, I slice them ahead of time and put them in containers. My daughter likes peeling clementines on her own at lunchtime, though.
With veggies, baby carrots and sugar snap peas are an already-prepped godsend. Both kids like ants on a log - celery spread with peanut butter and topped with raisins - put two sticks against each other to minimize the mess.
With yogurt, I prefer to buy plain Fage or Chobani Greek yogurt and pack blueberries or strawberries or pineapple chunks in separate containers, then dump the fruit on top of the yogurt when I'm ready to eat. The fruited Greek yogurts are too sugary for me. My children love the Yoplait Light yogurt cups because of the dessert-like flavors (Boston Creme Pie, anyone?).
For Brian and I, I frequently make salads for lunch - I often put them together when I'm making side salads for dinner the night before. With romaine lettuce - Common toppings: peppers, carrots, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, avocado, bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, hard-boiled eggs sliced, cooked chicken, turkey bacon, reduced fat blue or feta cheese, and a few goodies packed separately- croutons, chow mein noodles, crushed tortilla chips, or sunflower seeds. I use Penzey's Spices dressings bases to make great homemade dressings - we love their Italian and Greek ones especially. For a sweeter salad, I love spinach or a mix of greens topped with blueberries, strawberries, and/or raspberries, apple chunks, dried cranberries or cherries, feta or blue cheese, cashews or cocoa-dusted almonds, and poppyseed dressing (Brianna's Home Style Rich Poppyseed is the best!)
For a little snacky something to make the kids excited about their lunches, I have an extensive list of snacks - more on that in another article.