Aug 7, 2018, 10:11:07 AM CDT Oct 10, 2023, 5:07:11 PM CDT

6 tips for healthy school lunches

What should be in a healthy school lunch? Our clinical dietitians share ways to make a healthy lunch for school

Father and daughter packing her lunch Father and daughter packing her lunch

Many parents wonder what should be in a healthy school lunch. Dietitians at Children's Health℠ say the best lunch for your child is one they will eat. But how do you encourage your child to eat the foods that will power them through the afternoon rather than slow them down? Packing tasty, healthy options helps.

Read on for six easy ways to make healthy school lunches and snacks.

1. Include the major food groups

The foundation for any healthy meal is the five food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy and grains. Here are some of the major benefits of the main food groups:

  • Protein enhances satisfaction from a meal and ward off cravings later in the day.
  • Grains provide 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.

Including all of the food groups in your child’s lunch ensures a balanced diet that will keep them going throughout the school day.  

2. Select nutrient-rich foods

Most people don't consume enough calcium, fiber and potassium, three key nutrients. Each has health benefits for growing children, so add foods high in these nutrients to your child’s lunch:

  • Calcium: Great sources include dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt) and non-dairy foods such as canned fish, calcium-set tofu and dark greens. Add milk, drinkable yogurt or kefir as a beverage to get bone-building calcium and "good for you" bacteria.
  • Fiber: Beans, lentils, pears, berries, whole grains, beets and broccoli are all fiber-rich foods. Fruits and vegetables are easy, healthy snacks to pack and a great fiber source.  
  • Potassium: Foods with lots of potassium include baked potatoes, white beans and avocado. Adding avocado to your child’s sandwich is a tasty way to sneak in some potassium.

3. Spice up your sandwich

Sandwiches can be an easy lunch for school, but they do not have to be boring. Here are some tips:

  • Pick a base: Use whole-grain slices of bread, tortilla wraps or pitas to add variety.
  • 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 other protein options: Canned tuna, chopped boiled eggs and hummus are all great spreads for sandwiches. High-protein dips with whole grain crackers are another option.
  • Add in veggies: 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 your kids' snacks bright and appealing

Children are attracted to bright colors and interesting shapes. Repurpose your cookie cutters to create interesting shapes of sandwiches, fruits and even vegetables. Children also like small items for snacks. Try baby carrots or grape tomatoes and sliced fruit instead of whole. Cutting foods like cheese, lean meats and fruits into cubes can also get your child more excited about eating them.

Encourage your child to eat the rainbow with brightly colored fruits and vegetables like red bell peppers, oranges, pineapple, cucumber slices, blueberries and blackberries.

5. Mix it up with a power bowl

Try packing your child’s whole lunch into one bowl. Here's how to make a power bowl:

  • Start with a half cup of whole wheat pasta, rice or cooked quinoa.
  • Add protein from 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 additional flair with cucumbers, olives, basil and feta cheese to make a Greek-inspired bowl or mozzarella, tomatoes and oregano for an Italian option. Try corn, black beans, salsa and cilantro to give your bowl a southwestern flare. Finally, satisfy a craving for Asian food with fresh cabbage, sesame seeds, chopped peanuts and ginger dressing.

6. Meal prep healthy lunches and snacks for convenience during the week

Cut up your vegetables and prepare fruits for the entire week in advance. Then just add those to the daily lunch box for a healthy snack. Options include:

  • Apples slices
  • Baby carrots
  • Bell peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Halved radishes
  • Jicama
  • Sugar snap peas

Healthy school lunch ideas

Need some more inspiration or ideas to help you prepare lunches for the week? Our dietitians have gathered some of their favorite healthy, easy lunch ideas to get you started.

  • Hummus on bread or used as a dip for vegetable sticks or cucumber slices. Add in some orange wedges for a colorful, healthy snack.
  • Spread cream cheese around a pickle spear and wrap it with thin deli meat. Add purchased mini muffins and some strawberries for a balanced meal.
  • Homemade "Lunchable" made with cheese, whole-grain crackers, rolled/folded nitrate-free deli meat and a sweet treat, all packed separately for kids who don't like foods to touch.
  • "Elvis" sandwich of bread, nut butter and sliced banana, all drizzled with a little honey. Add in grape tomatoes as a colorful side.
  • Prepared macaroni & cheese packed into an insulated container, raw broccoli florets to dip in ranch dressing and mandarin oranges on the side.

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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