Aug 7, 2018, 10:11:07 AM CDT Dec 10, 2020, 10:55:30 AM CST

5 tips for healthy school lunches

Our clinical dietitians share ways to pack nutrition into your child's lunch

Mother and son packing his lunch box before school Mother and son packing his lunch box before school

When asked what a healthy lunch looks like, dietitians at Children's Health℠ remind parents that the best lunch is one that your child will eat. But how do you encourage your child to choose items that will power them through the second half of the day, rather than slow them down?

Packing tasty, healthy options will help your child make the best decision when it comes to nutrition – and it doesn't have to be difficult. Here are five ways to make school lunches healthy.

  1. Include the major food groups. The foundation for any healthy meal is the five five food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy and grains. Protein enhances satisfaction from a meal and wards off cravings later in the day. A serving of grains provides the energy the brain needs to stay focused. Fruits and vegetables are important sources of fiber and offer a natural variety of flavors and textures. Dairy sources provide satisfaction with a bonus of calcium.
  2. Opt for nutrient-rich foods. Most Americans don't consume enough of these three key nutrients. Each has health benefits for growing children, so add these in the lunch box when you can:
    • Calcium: Great sources include dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and non-dairy foods such as canned fish, calcium set tofu and dark greens
    • Fiber: Great sources include beans, lentils, pears, berries, whole grains, beets and broccoli
    • Potassium: Great sources include baked potatoes, white beans and avocado
  3. Spice up your sandwich. Sandwiches are a popular lunch item, but they don't have to be boring. Use whole-grain breads, tortilla wraps and pitas to add variety. Next, pick your protein: lean deli meats are a go-to option but don't forget last night's dinner; sliced grilled chicken, steak or even an extra burger patty can all be today's sandwich filler. Don’t forget softer proteins: canned tuna, chopped boiled eggs and hummus are all great spreads for sandwiches or high-protein dips for whole grain crackers. Lettuce and tomato are sandwich staples, but you can get creative by adding sliced carrots or cucumbers and darker greens like spinach or kale.
  4. Make it bright and appealing. Children often are attracted to bright colors and interesting shapes. Those cookie cutters aren't just for holiday cookies; repurpose them to create interesting shapes of sandwiches, fruits and even vegetables. Children often like small items; try baby carrots and grape tomatoes instead of full size.  
  5. Mix it up with a power bowl. Try something different by packing everything into one bowl. Start with a half cup of whole wheat pasta, rice or cooked quinoa. Add protein from any type of meat, beans or eggs. Mix in roasted vegetables; broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, onions, squash and asparagus all roast well and add flavor and color to lunch. Top with chopped nuts or pumpkin seeds for crunch and a dose of healthy fat. Add variety with a nod to cultural ingredients. A Greek bowl may feature cucumbers, olives, basil and feta cheese or go Italian with mozzarella, tomatoes and oregano. Corn, black beans, salsa and cilantro will give your bowl a southwestern flare. Satisfy a craving for Asian food with fresh cabbage, sesame seeds, chopped peanuts and ginger dressing.

Healthy school lunch ideas

Need some more inspiration? Our dietitians have gathered some of their favorite healthy lunch ideas to get you started.

  • Hummus or nut butter spread on bread or used as a dip for vegetable sticks or cucumber slices. Add in some orange wedges.  
  • Spread cream cheese around a pickle spear and wrap with thin deli meat. Add purchased mini muffins and some strawberries.
  • Homemade "lunchable" made with cheese, crackers, rolled/folded deli meat and a sweet treat all packed separately for kids who don't like foods to touch.
  • "Elvis" sandwich of bread, sunflower butter or nut butter, sliced banana; all drizzled with a little honey. Add in some grape tomatoes as a colorful side.
  • Prepared macaroni & cheese packed into an insulated container, raw broccoli florets to dip in ranch dressing. Add mandarin oranges.
  • Add milk, drinkable yogurt or kefir as a beverage to get bone building calcium and "good for you" bacteria.
  • Add variety with fruits and vegetables to have with lunch or as a snack later. Good options include:
    • Halved radishes
    • Baby carrots
    • Sugar snap peas
    • Grapes
    • Apples slices
    • Jicama
    • Cucumbers
    • Bell peppers

Download a free recipe e-book

Looking for easy meal ideas to keep your family healthy? Download 10 Easy and Healthy Weeknight Suppers to receive dietitian-recommended recipes your kids will love.

Learn more

Making one healthy choice at a time can help your family on the journey to wellness. Learn more about our pediatric weight management programs and services.

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