Healthy lunches are important. When kids skip lunch, they’re more likely to have trouble concentrating in the classroom, lack energy for after-school sports, and overeat low-nutrient after-school snacks.
When packing your child’s lunch, the goal is to choose items that pack a nutritional punch and appeal to your child. Use these tips to pack lunches your child will eat (and like!) rather than trade, throw away, or bring back home.
Balance it out.
Using MyPlate as a guide, try to get all major food groups represented in your child’s lunch. Here are some ideas:
Veggies – Add greens, tomato slices, or cucumber slices to sandwiches. Add avocado or guacamole to wraps. Swap the sandwich bread for a lettuce wrap. Try ‘finger veggies’ like baby carrots, celery sticks, mini peppers, cherry tomatoes, and sugar snap peas. Serve with a healthy dip like hummus, baba ganoush, or tzatiki.
Fruit – Bananas, grapes, and Clementine’s are easy-to-eat options for kids. If your child passes up apples, pears, or peaches, try serving them sliced. Dried fruit counts as a serving of fruit, too! Try raisins or easy-to-chew dried apricots, apples, or cherries. Swap fruit snacks for Kind Fruit Bites—the only ingredients are dried fruit!
Protein – Opt for lean animal proteins, like chicken or turkey deli meat, tuna, Canadian bacon, or hard-boiled egg. (Remember, chicken, tuna, and egg salads can be made ahead of time and hastily spread on sandwiches in the morning. Try replacing half the mayo with plain Greek yogurt for an extra protein boost). If nuts are allowed at school, try nut-based trail mix, nut-based Kind bars, peanut butter, or almond butter. If your child goes to a nut-free school, try sunflower butter instead.
Whole Grains – Swap refined grains for whole grain sandwich bread, wraps, and tortillas. Opt for whole grain crackers, like Wheat Thins or Triscuits. Popcorn is a whole grain, too! If you’re treating your child to a homemade baked good, try replacing half the flour with whole grain flour. Opt for quick breads made with a fruit or veggie, like zucchini bread, banana bread, or carrot muffins.
Dairy – Don't forget the dairy—kids’ bones are growing fast! Choose low-fat milk and pre-portioned cheeses, like string cheese or Baby Bells. Greek yogurt is a great choice. Opt for brands that sweeten with real fruit, like Chobani, Siggi’s, or Fage.
Make a plan.
Kids are far more likely to enjoy their lunch when they have a vested interest in it.
Involve kids in the planning process; sit down with your child before a weekend grocery trip and decide together what will go in school lunches. Determine which types of foods must go in each lunch (for example, a protein, a grain, a fruit and veggie, a dairy product, and an optional snack or sweet item), then make a checklist of things your child likes in each category. For example: “The vegetables I will eat in my lunch are: baby carrots, green pepper slices with ranch dip, cherry tomatoes, or a mini-salad.”
Kids, like adults, eat with their eyes first. Choose a reusable lunch bag or box with favorite characters or colors. Make foods as bright and colorful as possible (turmeric and beet juice make great natural dyes). Have fun with shapes and size—use cookie cutters on sandwiches or make mini-muffins.
Stay food safe.
Lunches with perishable foods like deli meat, dairy products, and cut fruits and vegetables should never be left out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours. For cold foods, invest in an insulated lunch bag and pack an icepack. Or, pack a frozen water bottle or box of 100% juice, and have your cold pack double as a refreshing noontime beverage. Pack hot foods like soup and stew in a thermos, and store in a separate compartment in your child’s lunchbox.
The best way to know if your child likes the lunches you pack? Ask them! Ask your child if you packed too much or too little food, if any items get mushy, discolored, or soggy by lunchtime, or if any items are too difficult for your child to open without an adult’s help.