healthy eating / wellness

How to Build a Healthy School Lunch

By Addie Roberts

October 6th, 2020

Last updated: October 6th, 2020

As kids transition back into school, most are now required to pack a lunch to bring with them in order to minimize time in the cafeteria and spread of germs and viruses. Perhaps some parents have been sending homemade lunches all along, while some other parents are now sending them for the first time. Regardless of how long you’ve been packing school lunches for kids, we can all use a reminder about what the healthiest but still kid-friendly options are to pack in lunches.

Some children can be “picky eaters”, but it’s important that parents continue to offer a variety of options in each food category, even the foods they claim not to like when they’ve tried them in the past. For best practices on nutrition and feeding children, the children get to choose what and how much they consume at a meal while the parents get to choose what is offered, where the food is offered, and what time the food is offered. Maintaining these food responsibilities can be a helpful way to think about mealtimes with children.

Components of a Healthy Lunch

Keeping in mind the child and parent or guardian responsibilities, the adult can offer healthy food whenever possible. Healthy food can be thought of in a few different categories including fruit, vegetables, grains, and protein options. It’s important to choose a wide variety of foods in each category to ensure kids are exposed to many foods and don’t become too picky early on. And at each meal, you can choose one food from each category to offer the child. So when packing a lunch, you can create a combination of a meat or vegetarian protein such as beans, a grain option like plain popcorn, a fruit such as strawberries, and a vegetable like green beans or cucumber pieces. This would give the child a food option from each category and also a few different options of what to eat if they don’t feel like eating all that is offered to them. Whenever possible, try to avoid giving too many processed foods with added sugar or dessert options at each meal. This can create a sugar craving in the kids and lessen their ability to enjoy natural foods like fruit as a sweet treat option instead. While in an ideal world every option included would be a healthy option, that’s not always realistic when putting together meals for little kids. As a good rule of thumb, try to get one food from each category and focus on at least 1-2 of the 4 categories being the healthy options you can find. Below are options in each category that can be healthy to offer as you are packing healthy school lunches for kids.

Fruit: avocado, apples, oranges, clementines, grapes, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches, nectarines, plums, pineapple, cantaloupe melon, honeydew melon, watermelon, kiwi, pears, grapefruit

Vegetables: cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, broccoli, green beans, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, leafy greens (spinach, lettuce, kale, etc), bok choy, asparagus, brussel sprouts, onions, cauliflower, eggplant

Protein: chicken, turkey, ground meat, beef, fish, beans, hummus, yogurt, string cheese

Grains or starchy vegetables: rice, quinoa, popcorn, oatmeal, 100% whole wheat bread, potatoes (any variety), corn, green peas

By Addie Roberts