Healthy Packed School Lunches your Kids Won’t Complain About
It’s National Back to School Month! For many parents, this means looking at nine months ahead of them packing nutritious school lunches that their kids will eat and not throw away or trade with other students.
Some new research suggests that elementary school students who eat federally sponsored school lunches have higher quality diets than those who bring lunches from home. However, with careful planning, lunches brought from home can be high quality, which is important given emerging findings associating diet quality with greater cognitive function or children’s ability to learn.
The following are some tips to help you provide your children with winning packed lunches to take to school:
- Enlist kids’ help in choosing foods to include in the lunchbox and, depending on their age or skill level, engage them in the preparation. Many young kids think it’s fun to grate cheese, wash grapes or strawberries, or measure an amount of granola into a small bag, as examples. Older kids can take more responsibility for preparing their lunches. Bring kids to the grocery store with you and let them choose some nutritious foods to pack in their lunches. While some compromises may need to be made if kids favor less healthful food choices, working together to pack a school lunch can provide an opportunity to share some nutrition information with your kids.
- Plan ahead so that lunches can be packed quickly in the early morning. Make a plan each Sunday for the week ahead and get kids’ input about what to include in their packed lunches.
- Make it nutritious by including foods from each of USDA’s MyPlate five food groups – fruits (apples, berries), vegetables (leafy greens, baby carrots, avocado slices), grains (whole grains and legumes), protein (turkey, hard boiled eggs), and dairy (milk, cheese sticks, small yogurt). Dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt, and milk are also sources of high-quality protein. Including a source of protein at lunch is important considering most protein is consumed at dinner and protein’s benefits are best achieved when spread evenly at meals throughout the day.
- Opt for obtaining milk at school. Students can purchase cold milk from the cafeteria. Also, most schools have electronic accounts so children don’t need to bring money into school every day to buy milk. Milk is a naturally nutrient-rich drink important for children’s growth and development.
- Tailor portion sizes to your child’s appetite. Bite-sized foods work best for children with small appetites or who have little time to eat lunch at school.
- Don’t fall into a rut. Be creative and think beyond providing similar lunches every day. Soup, pasta, mini wraps (e.g., ham and cheese), salad with separate dressing, and leftovers from the previous night’s dinner can be options to traditional sandwiches and provide variety so kids won’t get bored with lunch. You can also be creative with how to present lunch foods, such as changing the shape of a sandwich using fun sandwich cutters or providing a healthy, delicious yogurt dip for sliced apples or celery. If the school does not allow peanuts because of a student’s peanut allergy, you will need to be creative and provide other options to the standby peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
- Keep packed school lunches safe. Protect perishable foods such as hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, or a sandwich with meat, chicken, or tuna by packing in an insulated lunch bag with a frozen ice pack to keep foods cold until lunchtime. Keep hot foods such as soup and chili hot by using a well-insulated, tightly sealed thermos until ready to eat. For more suggestions to keep your child’s lunch safe as it travels from your kitchen to the school cafeteria, check the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ safe lunch tip sheet.
Want to up your children’s school snack game? Check out a couple of our kid-friendly lunch box recipes:
Love these recipes? Visit our Recipes page for more inspiration.