Packing a nutritious school lunch is easy enough. Making a lunch your child will actually eat is the challenge. So it's no wonder many parents opt for the quick fix: A trip to the deli section to stock up on kid-friendly lunch kits.
They're not exactly a meal in the hand -- most lack fresh fruit or vegetables -- but they're a quick jump start that's likely to please picky kids.
A great lunch kit pairs tasty protein with nutritious sides, such as nuts, seeds or dried fruit. A bad one is packed with fatty, over-salted fare.
Here's the scoop on what to pack and what to sack.
Lunch Bundle Pizza
Crispy cheese-flavored crackers, fresh tomato sauce and a side of dried apples and chocolate tucked into a bento-like tray make for a stellar example of how great a meal in a box can actually be. The vegetarian Powerfood version is just as impressive. A 5-ounce box has 380 calories, 19 g fat, 540 mg sodium, 14 g protein. $3.99 at some Safeway stores. (4 stars)
Del Duca On-The-Go Prosciutto, Provolone & Taralli Bread
Top quality cheese and prosciutto paired with crispy Italian bread bites provide a big hit of protein without too much added fat and sodium. A 3-ounce package has 260 calories, 15 g fat, 620 mg sodium, 16 g protein. $3.49 at some Safeway stores; $3.99 at some Sprouts, $5.99 with olives. (4 stars)
Archer Farms Fruit & Cheese Snack Box
Healthy eaters who don't want meat can opt for this somewhat pricey collection of of cheese, Carr's water crackers, apple slices, grapes, dried fruit and chocolate. A 5-ounce box has 570 calories, 33 g fat, 200 mg sodium, 12 g protein. $4.49 at some Targets. (3½ stars)
Oscar Mayer P3 Portable Protein Pack
Chunks of basic, but edible, deli chicken and cheese and a handful of fresh, dry-roasted peanuts make this a fine choice for those who need a quick shot of protein. A 2-ounce package has 170 calories, 11 g fat, 480 mg sodium, 14 g protein. $1.66 at some Target stores. (3½ stars)
Galileo Italian Dry Salami Snack Trios
Melba crackers and thick cuts of nicely cured salami and cheese make for a substantial snack that's big enough to share. It loses points for off-the-charts sodium content. A 3.2-ounce package has 330 calories, 21 g fat, 1570 mg sodium, 17 g protein. $2.99 at some Safeway stores. (3 stars)
Applegate Farms Half Time with Turkey Breast
Despite the awkward packaging -- you have to pour the pouches out on the table to figure out what's what -- this slightly bland meal will please younger eaters. Individual components are fresh, simple and provide a relatively balanced meal. Meals include meat, cheese, yogurt squeezers and Annie's cookies or fruit snacks. A 5.2-ounce box has 310 calories, 11 g fat, 620 mg sodium, 15 g protein. $4.99 at some Target and Safeway stores. (3 stars)
Revolution Foods Turkey & Cheddar Meal Kit
The flavors inside these hard-to-open pouches are surprisingly good, and the whole grain crackers are especially so. The box opens into a tray and the ingredients are fresher and more natural than most, albeit shockingly minimal in volume. A 3.19-ounce box has 260 calories, 11 g fat, 440 mg sodium, 15 g protein. $3.49 at some Safeway stores. (2 ½ stars)
Hormel Rev Peppered Turkey
This is a seriously substantial snack with odd texture but acceptable flavor. It consists of a flavored flatbread wrapped around slices of salty turkey and mozzarella. The pepperoni version is slightly less appealing eaten cold. A 3-ounce package has 220 calories, 10 g fat, 950 mg sodium, 18 g protein. $1.99 at some Safeway stores. (2 stars)
StarKist Lunch To-Go
If this kit was made with whole grain crackers and chunk white tuna, it would get double the stars. As is, it's a bargain, but the tuna is a bit too fishy and the crackers crumbly and tasteless. Thank heavens for the mint included in the box. A box has 230 calories, 9 g fat, 640 mg sodium, 18 g protein. $1.41 at Target. (1½ stars)
Lunchables Turkey Cheddar Sub
This miniature sub sandwich is easy to assemble, but has very little flavor. The nonfat dressing as a subtitute for mayonnaise is a great idea. It comes with a smoothie and two cookies. A 4.2-ounce box has 430 calories, 12 g fat, 590 mg sodium, 12 g protein. $1 on sale at Target; $2 at Safeway. (1½ stars)
Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza
Bread with an unpleasantly sweet aftertaste and over-herbed sauce make for a pitiful pizza stand-in, but the snack-sized lunch has great packaging. A 4.2-ounce package has 270 calories, 9 g fat, 600 mg sodium, 16 g protein. $1 on sale at Target; $2 at Safeway. (½ star)
Lunchables Uploaded Ultimate Deep Dish Pizza with Bacon
The problem with this new version of Lunchables is that they're charging a lot more money for adding a drink -- a bottle of water plus a flavor pouch. It's good that the bread is bigger, but it's pasty and the bacon is too chewy. A 5.1 ounce box plus drink has 450 calories, 16 g fat, 820 mg sodium, 15 g protein. $3.49 at Safeway. (½ star)
Bumblebee Sensations Spicy Thai Chili Tuna Medley
The promise of spicy Thai chili falls flat with the first bite of this overly sweet, yet protein-packed tuna mixture with crispy but boring crackers. A 3.6-ounce box has 210 calories, 7 g fat, 375 mg sodium, 18 g protein. $1.51 at Target. (½ star)
Armour Lunchmakers Pepperoni Pizza
The bread is dried out and icky. Couple that with fatty, slimy pepperoni and this is a really poor excuse for lunch. The turkey and crackers version is just as bad. A 2.9.ounce package has 240 calories, 10 g fat, 440 mg sodium, 9 g protein. $1.25 at some Safeway stores. (0 stars)
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at email@example.com.