Packing Healthy School Lunches

Most kids like to buy their lunches at school. Many schools have been working hard to make their lunches more nutritious. But even when healthy choices are available, a hungry kid could find it hard to resist the temptation of unhealthy foods.

That’s one reason it’s a good idea to have your child take his or her lunch to school a few times a week. Here are some others:

  • It gives kids some variety in what they’re eating. They don’t have to choose from the same types of food every day.
  • It gives you some control over what they’re eating. That way you’ll know they are eating healthy at least a few days a week.
  • Some kids could have a game or activity after school. You can pack a lunch and snacks that will keep their energy up all day long.
  • You can use it as a chance to guide your child toward good eating choices.

Path to improved wellness

Here are some steps you can take to make sure your child is getting a healthy lunch from home.

Involve your child

Start by brainstorming with your child about the foods and snacks your child likes to eat. Provide healthy options and let your child choose what he or she wants to take to school. Have your child help you shop for the foods they’ll eat. Prepare as much of the lunches together as you can. This will give your child ownership over his or her decision. They will be more likely to eat everything you pack.

Do a lunch makeover

Go beyond a bologna sandwich and chips. Make healthy substitutes to improve the nutritional value of the lunch. Here are some simple swaps you can make to turn a standard packed lunch into a healthy one.

Instead of…Try…
High-fat lunch meatLower-fat meats, such as turkey
White breadWhole-grain or whole-wheat bread, tortilla, or pita
MayonnaiseLow-fat mayo, mustard, or hummus
ChipsBaked chips, popcorn, or veggies with dip
Canned fruit in syrupFresh fruit
Snack cakes or cookiesYogurt, trail mix, or healthy homemade treats
SodaLow-fat milk, water, or 100% juice

Pack it safe

When you pack a lunch, pay attention to food safety measures. You need to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold throughout the morning until lunchtime. Pack hot foods in a thermos. Include a cold pack for items that need refrigerated, such as sandwiches with deli meat or dips for veggies. You can also freeze some items the night before. This will give them the morning to thaw out in your child’s lunchbox. This can be done with juice boxes, sandwiches, and yogurt.

Make it fun

If your child isn’t excited about healthy eating, try to make the food fun.

  • Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into shapes.
  • Instead of cutting up fresh fruit, try using a melon baller.
  • Make food kabobs using safe, plastic skewers.
  • Create fun snacks, such as ants on a log (celery filled with low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter, with raisins on top).

Include all the food groups

Your child needs a balanced diet with food from all the food groups. MyPlate.gov is a good starting point for guidance. The main groups include:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • lean protein (chicken, fish, eggs, beans, or nuts)
  • whole grains (breads, pastas, or rice)
  • low-fat dairy (milk, yogurt, or cheese).

Things to consider

When you’re trying to pack healthy lunches for you child, it’s easy to make mistakes. One study found that lunches brought from home are likely to be higher in calories, fat, and sugar than what can be purchased at school.

These are some common mistakes parents make, and what you can do instead.

  • You pack too much food. You want to give your child options and make sure he or she has enough food. But you could be packing too much. Instead, think about how much your child eats on the weekend, and try to follow that.
  • You choose foods made for kids. Some foods are marketed to kids. But that doesn’t make them healthy. Read the nutrition label and the ingredient list to look for hidden sugars, sodium, or fat levels.
  • You don’t include enough protein. If lunch is a sandwich, chips, snack cakes, and a soda, almost the whole lunch is carbohydrates. Once those carbs are digested, your child will get hungry. Including protein in lunches and snacks is important. It helps them stay full longer. It gives them the energy they need to make it through the day.
  • You include fruits but not veggies. Kids tend to like fruit more than vegetables. It’s easy to include fruit in the lunch and feel like you’re doing a good job. But try to include veggies too. Carrots and celery can be dipped in hummus or peanut butter, providing a veggie and a protein punch.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Are schools required to provide healthy lunches?
  • What are some healthy foods I can provide for my child?
  • Where can I get ideas for healthy lunches?
  • How do I know how much food my child needs?

Resources

ChooseMyPlate.gov