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Refreshing back-to-school meals

August 25, 2022 | Valerie Elwell
Taste the rainbow with this bowl of veggies and salsa chicken.
This rainbow lunch bowl is brimming with vibrant vegetables and lean protein to keep you energized and focused in the afternoon hours. Photos by Jessica Van Roo.

Now that school is back in session and many of us have returned to the office, it's time to reboot our lunchtime planning. Home-made lunches have proven health benefits including:

  • Higher quality food because you know how fresh the ingredients are and their source (organic, a farmers market, grass-fed).
  • More time to relax and enjoy your food because you don't have to stand in line to buy a meal.
  • More satisfaction because you can slow down, socialize and savor your food.
  • Saving money by purchasing food in bulk, on sale or at farmer's markets.
  • Weight control because home-prepared meals almost always means better portion control and fewer calories.

Taking a lunch break allows your mind to rest, recharge and refocus, which can improve productivity for the rest of the day. Children, especially, need time to eat.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), providing at least 20 minutes of "seat time" for children to eat their lunch is optimum. Studies show this increases consumption of food and key nutrients, including fruits and vegetables, and decreased plate waste. 

"A healthy lunch gives us an energy boost to get past the 3 p.m. slump and avoid unhealthy snacks,” says Katie Rankell, a registered dietitian and program director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program. "It helps both kids and adults maintain focus at school and work."

These meals — created by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health — are loaded with fresh, and refreshing, ingredients that will make kids and adults want to sit down, settle in and enjoy their lunchtime break.


Kids can make their own little pizzas with these tasty ingredients.

DIY Lunchables

Serves 4
Calories per serving: Pizza, 376 / Meat, cheese and crackers, 456

Involving children in food preparation makes it more likely they will eat it.

This pair of do-it-yourself lunchable recipes are fun to put together and your kids can help!

Let them use cookie cutters to make fun shapes or a measuring cup to portion ingredients into their lunch containers.


(Cost $12.84/$3.21 per serving)

  • 4 whole wheat English muffins, mini bagels or sandwich thins
  • ½ cup pizza or marinara sauce
  • ½ cup shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese
  • 6 slices smoked turkey breast
  • 2 cucumbers cut into 12 sticks
  • ¼ cup peanut butter or other nut butter
  • 2 large apples, sliced

Meat, cheese and crackers
(Cost $12.18/$3.05 per serving)

  • 2 cucumbers cut into 12 sticks
  • 1 carrot cut into 12 sticks
  • 8 slices turkey breast or chicken
  • 12 slices cheese cut into triangles
  • 24 to 40 whole wheat or seed crackers
  • ¼ cup chocolate chips
  • ½ cup blueberries (mix with chocolate chips)


A DIY lunchable with meat, cheese, crackers, fruits and vegetables.
  • Place each ingredient in an individual container within each lunch box, if possible. (Think reusable silicone cups or muffin pan liners. Bento boxes are another great option.)
  • Cut out fun shapes.
  • Try wrapping vegetables with slices of lunch meat.
  • Switch up the fruits and vegetables, using seasonal ingredients or your child's favorites.
  • Refrigerate lunches up to three days.



Rainbow Lunch Bowl and Cilantro Yogurt Drizzle

Serves 4 (Cost $15.54/$3.89 per serving)
Calories per serving: 359

Taste the rainbow with this bowl of fresh vegetables.

Who doesn't love a rainbow? Especially when it's a bowl of vibrant vegetables brimming with nutrients to keep us energized and focused in the afternoon hours.

The kale in this recipe is beneficial for brain function because it contains lots of vitamin K, folate and lutein, which have been shown to reduce cognitive decline. This well-known superfood is also chock-full of calcium.

One cup of chopped red cabbage packs 85% of the recommended daily vitamin C intake, the same amount found in a small orange.

Sweet bell peppers are a great source of lutein as well as zeaxanthin — carotenoids that may improve eye health when consumed in adequate amounts by protecting the retina — the light-sensitive inner wall of your eye — from oxidative damage. A number of studies indicate that eating foods rich in carotenoids may cut the risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration.

This rainbow bowl is also loaded with protein from chickpeas or chicken, hardboiled egg and the Greek yogurt — a 7 oz serving provides 20 grams of protein! Greek yogurt is rich in essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B-12 for red blood cell formation, enhanced nervous system function and energy production. It also contains selenium and zinc —  important for optimal immune function and thyroid health.


Rainbow bowl

  • 2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice, warmed
  • 2 cups finely shredded red cabbage
  • 2 cups finely shredded kale
  • 1 sweet bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 cup shredded carrots or peeled carrot ribbons
  • 1 (14 oz.) can chickpeas, drained; or ½ recipe of the salsa chicken
    (recipe below)
  • 2 ripe avocados, halved, pitted and thinly sliced into long strips
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs

Cilantro yogurt drizzle 

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • ½ cup cilantro (or mint, if you prefer)
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh juice from 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


  • Divide cooked rice into four bowls.
  • Spread remaining ingredients evenly among rice bowls.
  • Combine yogurt ingredients in blender or food processor, adding water as needed to thin to desired consistency.
  • Drizzle over each bowl before packing or serving.


Salsa Chicken Stuffed Pita and Summer Fruit Skewers

Serves 4 (Cost $18.71/$4.68 per serving)
Calories per serving: 485

A lunch of stuffed chicken pitas and fruit skewers provide the power to get through your day.

These stuffed chicken pitas and fruit skewers are also fun for kids to help make. They can spoon ingredients into the pita pocket or sprinkle the cheese on top. Older kids can have fun playing with colorful combinations of fruit as they build the skewers.

This simple, savory chicken is seasoned with spices found in most pantries and can be used in many recipes, including the rainbow bowl above. You can also prepare larger batches to freeze, saving time when you need to prepare a quick meal.

Combining chicken with black beans makes this meal a great sources of lean protein. Add spinach and you've boosted the nutrient load with antioxidants that benefit eye health, reduce oxidative stress, help prevent cancer and lower blood pressure.

Did you know that avocados are actually berries related to the cinnamon tree? They also happen to be rich in fiber, healthy fats, vitamins C, E and B6, potassium, magnesium and folate, which aid in gut health and protect the heart.

Summer is the season for peaches, which are packed with antioxidants — beneficial plant compounds that combat oxidative damage and help protect your body against aging and disease. The fresher and riper the peach, the more antioxidants it contains. Blueberries are considered a superfood. It's particular superpower is a group of flavonoids called anthocyanins shown to directly increase antioxidant levels in the body.



  • 2 cups salsa chicken
  • 1 cup corn, defrosted if frozen; rinsed and drained if canned
  • 1 cup cooked black beans; rinsed and drained if canned
  • 4 whole wheat pitas, cut in half
  • ½ cup shredded cheese
  • 1 cup baby spinach or lettuce, chopped
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 1 lime (quartered, optional)
  • Extra salsa, if desired

Summer fruit skewers

  • 12 wooden skewers
  • 4 peaches, sliced
  • 24 blueberries
  • 24 grapes

Salsa chicken

  • 2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 ¾ cup or 16 oz. salsa, fresh or jarred
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 ½ teaspoon chili powder (NOT cayenne)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper



  • Combine garlic powder, cumin, chili, oregano, salt, and pepper and season chicken breasts.
  • Add salsa to an Instant pot, place seasoned chicken on top of salsa.
  • Cover instant pot and cook on high pressure for 10-12 minutes, allowing it to release naturally.
  • Remove chicken from sauce, shred (adding a little more sauce to chicken as desired).
  • To make on stove, cook salsa and chicken in pot with fitted lid over medium heat to internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 8-10 minutes. (Do not overcook or chicken will get tough and dry.
  • To prepare in a slow cooker, heat on low for 4-6 hours.

Pita pockets

  • Combine salsa chicken with corn and black beans in a large bowl, mix well.
  • Stuff each pita half full with chicken filling.
  • Top with cheese, spinach or lettuce and avocado slices.
  • Serve with extra salsa on the side, if desired.

Next, skewer fruit and serve or refrigerate until serving time. (Freeze them for an extra special treat!)


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