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Your go-to guide for packing a healthy school lunch

August 10, 2015

Packing a school lunch every day can be stressful and often time-consuming. Many children and teens prefer to munch on sweet and salty foods such as chips, candy, fast-food burgers and greasy pizza instead of fresh fruits and vegetables. Choosing a more healthful lunch most likely will improve a child’s school performance, attention span, and also health. Having a lunch-packing guide can help make the process go more smoothly.

Here are some tips for making a healthy lunch box feel as easy as 1-2-3!

First, know all of the elements of a healthy lunch.

A healthy lunch:
  • Includes all 5 food groups (grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat/beans). Each food group provides something different for a growing body. Visit for a guide to a balanced lunch.
  • Is colorful. Encourage kids to try to add as many colors in their lunch. Remember, the more colorful our meal is, the more nutrients it has.
  • Offers a variety of wholesome foods. Give them options for their lunches rather than sticking with the same one or two items.
  • Is always changing, some kids enjoy consistency but others embrace change. Something simple as changing a fruit or vegetable weekly can make lunch more exciting.

Packing a School Lunch Can Be Easy!

Choose a Main Course. Make the main course the focus of the school lunch. Swap out the usual white bread for a heartier whole wheat. This main course provides most of the much-needed energy for your child throughout the day. Load up on whole grains, protein, fiber and heart-healthy fats.
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich – Choose 100% fruit jelly and whole wheat bread. Try soft wheat bread if your child is new to whole wheat variety.
  • Greek Yogurt Parfait – Greek yogurt packs a powerful punch of muscle building protein and bone-building calcium. Add some fresh fruit for a sweet touch.
  • Roll-ups – Try rolling sliced bananas, peanut butter and a drizzle of honey into a whole wheat tortilla or have children experiment with different ingredients such as granola, almond butter, wheat germ, dark chocolate chips, or other fruits. They might discover a new favorite recipe. If your child is feeling adventurous, have them try a vegetarian wrap with hummus, cheese, and an assortment of vegetables.
  • Sliced Turkey/Chicken Sandwich – Power up with a protein rich sandwich. Use low-sodium deli meat or leftover baked chicken from the night before. Add some lettuce, shredded carrots, and tomatoes for some color. Not a fan of meat products? Make an egg or chickpea salad sandwich on a mini bagel for a quick breakfast-like sandwich.
  • Thermos of Hot Soup – Aim for hearty and healthy soups like vegetable, chicken noodle with vegetables, and bean/lentil. Avoid cream based soups because they are generally higher in calories, fat, and low on vegetables.
  • Pasta Salad - Use whole wheat pasta with an array of chopped vegetables, a sprinkle of cheese, and light salad dressing. Add pasta salad to a bed of lettuce for some additional vegetables. Try adding chickpeas or black beans for some fiber and protein.
  • Vegetable Pizza - What kid doesn’t love pizza for lunch? Add some green peppers, tomatoes, and olives. Delicious!

Fabulous Fruit and Vibrant Vegetables. Next, choose a variety of fruits and vegetables. Encourage children and teens to choose fruits and vegetables for the week during a grocery store trip. This can be a great way to introduce them to foods that they are unfamiliar with. Many children still have not developed a taste for vegetables, so pairing them with a yogurt based dressing, hummus, or peanut butter can make them more appealing.

Here are some ideas:

  • Grapes, banana, peaches, pears, apple slices, berries, watermelon, cantaloupe, or other fresh fruit
  • Carrot sticks, celery, cucumbers, sweet peppers with hummus
  • Apple slices with peanut butter
  • Unsweetened applesauce cups
  • Celery with peanut butter and raisins
  • Chopped fresh vegetables with a yogurt dip
  • Fruit cups packaged in own juice
  • Green salad or fruit salad

Satisfying Sides

Lastly, add a few additional sides to anchor the meal.

  • Cheese and whole grain crackers
  • Air popped popcorn
  • Nuts and seeds such as almonds, pistachios, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds
  • Snack pack of pretzels or goldfish
  • Homemade trail mix with nuts, dry cereal, popcorn, dried fruit, chocolate chips and pretzels
  • Granola bar
  • Individual cheese stick
  • Homemade muffin
  • Hard boiled eggs

Keep in mind:

  1. Pack at least an 8oz bottle of water or low-fat milk.
  2. Be mindful of portions.
  3. Keep it simple, especially with picky eaters.
  4. Avoid sugary drinks such as fruit juices, sodas, and sport drinks.
  5. Provide easy-to-open packages and containers, especially for younger children.
  6. Lunches can be packed the night before, which often saves additional time in the morning.
  7. Make it a game and challenge kids to pack lunch that corresponds to the day of the week. For example; pack as many foods that begin with “M” on Monday and then “W” on Wednesday. See what they come up with; kids are very creative!
  8. Use cookie cutters to make shapes out of sandwiches and fruit. What child would not want a dinosaur or heart-shaped sandwich or even watermelon in the shape of a star?
With a little guidance, packing school lunches can feel like a breeze. Be creative and enjoy the adventure!

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